A field trip to the Terai

I was recently sent down to Janakpur, the city in Dhanusha, on the plains of the Terai. The field office of the organisation for whom I am working is down there, and so it was decided that it would be a good idea if I went down and met the actual people who would be using the phones and software on which I am working.

Anyway, I approached this trip with trepidation, as Kelly had been down there previously and, well, let’s say she didn’t have the best time. However, I also thought I would probably be alright as she is a tall blonde cautious female, whereas I am a tall oblivious male – I might well attract just as much attention as she did, but I either wouldn’t feel threatened or wouldn’t notice in the first place. My boss and I hopped on a 50 seater plane (apparently this is pretty large for the Kathmandu-Janakpur journey) and I watched the landscape change rapidly from snowy mountains and green hills to brown fields and sprawling silty floodplains – the flight only lasted 25 minutes, but when we landed we may as well have been in another country.

Welcome to Janakpur! It is flat and hot.

Welcome to Janakpur! It is flat and hot.

We were greeted at the tiny airport by three members of staff from the Janakpur office, on three motorbikes. A discussion ensued which I sort of followed – the driver was on holiday and there was only one car, they didn’t bring any extra helmets, and I heard the words “insurance” and “nullify” amidst the stream of Nepali. I was not particularly reassured, but as there was no alternative I hopped on the back of a bike and off we went through the streets of Dhanusha. The first stop was our hotel, the Rama, where Kelly and other western staff have stayed on numerous occasions – I had heard about the appalling bathrooms, mice in the rooms, possible bedbugs etc. so perhaps I was prepared for the worst, but actually it was fine. I was put in an A/C room with a window overlooking the road, a grubby but not dreadful bathroom, a ceiling fan and a TV – it all looked pretty knackered (and it turned out that the A/C and TV didn’t work at all), but once I had rigged up my mosquito net and sleeping bad liner it would definitely do for the next couple of nights.

My room - turning the fan on caused an alarming mosquito net dervish to appear.

My room – turning the fan on caused an alarming mosquito net dervish to appear.


The charming view from my hotel window.

The charming view from my hotel window.

Janakpur is a city of baths – by this I mean that is has a multitude of large ponds for bathing, washing, and whatever else you would use a large pond for – these provide tranquil oases in an otherwise dusty and hectic city.

One of the huge pools in the centre of town.

One of the huge pools in the centre of town.


Washing, bathing, swimming, chilling.

Washing, bathing, swimming, chilling.

However, a side effect of the high water table which allows the existence of these baths is that Janakpur appears to be rather prone to flooding – after the recent rains I passed a few large bodies of standing water, many of which were choked with rubbish, attracting the local wildlife.

One of many small floods/big puddles.

One of many small floods/big puddles.


Alright? Yeah, just chilling in the filth. Cool.

“Alright?”
“Yeah, just chilling in the filth.”
“Cool.”

As you are probably aware, cows are sacred in India and Nepal, and consequently there are many which roam the streets of towns and cities, scavenging for food in the rubbish. I initially thought that this particular cow was heavily pregnant (good), until I noticed that it was male and therefore the enormous abdominal swelling was probably an accumulation of years of plastic eaten among the scraps (bad).

Swollen bullock.

Swollen bullock.


Umm, no caption for this. A nice tree?

Umm, no caption for this. A nice tree?

On my second night I was invited to meet the new son of one of the staff – apparently he had been born 4 days ago and usually they wait 6 days before the baby is introduced to the world and named, however as my boss was there they invited us to come over for dinner the night before the official ceremony, as we wouldn’t be there. The mother was at the end of the Soiri period, which is traditionally a period of isolation and restricted food, however (as probably befits a family where the father works in maternal and infant health) the regulations had been somewhat relaxed, and instead the mother seemed to have been given some privacy and peace and quiet instead of the strict isolation which I had heard about. We were given some of the halva made from ginger which is one of the staple foods of the Soiri period, and had an enormous amount of Dhal Bhat thrust upon us – my two western colleagues are both smaller ladies who know enough Nepali to say when they are full, whereas I was assumed to have a herculean appetite, and had forgotten the word for “enough”. I was congratulated the next day for being adventurous in my eating, meaning that I ate everything without worrying too much – I did get rather ill the following day, but I think that is probably just the price you pay for coming down here.

My colleague's wife and son.

My colleague’s wife and son.

In spite of Janakpur being not particularly wealthy (at least when compared to Kathmandu Valley), it possesses some surprising architecture. Just near the office is Ramananda Chowk, a huge edifice resembling elephant tusks, atop which sits a statue of what may be the titular Ramananda – I was not able to get close enough to see.

Ramananda Chowk, the tallest thing in Janakpur.

Ramananda Chowk, the tallest thing in Janakpur.

The marvel in the centre of Janakpur is the Janaki Mandir, a temple and pilgrimage sight which is the reason for both Janakpur’s name and, in large part, its relative prosperity in the region, as large numbers of Indian and Nepali tourists come to see the temple on the spot where the goddess Sita supposedly lived.

Janaki Mandir - ornate and impressive.

Janaki Mandir – ornate and impressive.


Garlands and other orange things for sale.

Garlands and other orange things for sale.


Janaki Mandir from another angle - maybe next time I will go inside...

Janaki Mandir from another angle – maybe next time I will go inside…

During my brief visit I met people, fiddled with computers, went around on some motorbikes (with a helmet) and visited the Janakpur Women’s Development Centre, where I ended up buying as much Maithili art and stuff as I could carry back to Kathmandu.

The wall decorations at the JWDC - no photos allowed inside, in case we steal their designs.

The wall decorations at the JWDC – no photos allowed inside, in case we steal their designs.

After this it was time to go back to Kathmandu so at 1330 I hopped on the back of a bike, having been assured that half an hour was plenty of time to get to the airport, check in, and get on the flight – as it turns out it was, just, but I was very much the last person on the (very tiny) plane.

Janakpur airport - please arrive 8 minutes before your departure time.

Janakpur airport – please arrive 8 minutes before your departure time.


Back on a much more appropriately sized plane.

Back on a much more appropriately sized plane.


Ever so flat.

Ever so flat.

Although it was only a short visit I found it really interesting enjoyable – if indeed Janakpur is very like North India, then I think I should like to go to North India soon. Also, from the plane I think I caught my first proper glimpse of Everest, of which I took about 50 photos, 49 of which are rubbish.

That pyramidal one in the middle is, apparently, Everest.

That pyramidal one in the middle is, apparently, Everest. Click to view it full size, I dare you.

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A romantic evening at the crematorium

Apologies for the long hiatus – I have been rather busy with the actual business of living here. Since my last post we settled into our apartment and I managed to find myself a paid job. Those who know me well will understand how much of a remarkable event this is, and those who know Kathmandu may have similar feelings – through a sequence of happenstances (aided by Kelly, I must add) I met a few people working with her university who all decided that it would be a good idea if I came to work for them, helping out on the software and implementation side of data collection on mobile phones, for a public health trial in Nepal. I am now a consultant, in what exactly remains to be seen.

Anyway, back to the post. Last week Kelly and I went to Pashupatinath, a large complex of temples, for what was meant to be a a romantic evening. We neglected, however, to fully consider the fact that this was also the most sacred spot for Nepalese Hindus to be cremated. Upon arrival we skipped past the stalls selling marigolds and tikka powder to devotees, and headed straight for the temple proper. We were chatted to by a nice chap, who (it soon emerged) was giving us a free sample of his tour guiding skills. He seemed trustworthy (he had a friendly face, this is genuinely the reason I decided we should employ his services) and was soon showing us round, with a big grin at all times. First we looked over a wall to find a smoking funeral pyre, with what may or may not have been some bones on top. The river was choked with the discarded embers of the fires, chucked in after they had burnt out. There were kids in (ill advised) flip flops in the river, scraping through the mud and ash for gold teeth, jewellery and fillings. Quite a lot to take in in the first glance. Also this is a difficult place to take photos – the temples themselves are beautiful and impressive, but at the same time it was very important to not take photos of the grieving families and of the actual cremations themselves. I didn’t feel there was any reason for me to have photos of somebody else’s funeral.

The tiered roof is the temple that no non-Hindu may enter. On the right is the hospice, conveniently located near the cremation platforms.

The tiered roof is the temple that no non-Hindu may enter. On the right is the hospice, conveniently located near the cremation platforms.


So, after we accepted his services, our guide took us on a cheery tour of the temples, starting at the Kama Sutra temple, which had erotic carvings and was said to have been responsible for an explosion in population in the Kathmandu valley, as those who visited it took inspiration. Our guide told us what each temple was, showed us the 12 Shiva Lingams/Yonis, each in their own temple, gave us a brief summary of what Sadhus were and the various types (naked, entertaining, hashish-smoking and milk-drinking. I am not sure that these are four strict disciplines), and explained everything we could see.
A line of lingams

A line of lingams


There was a hospice overlooking the cremation zone, there is a sacred slab where bodies are washed prior to cremation (and upon which people from the hospice can spend their last few moments to maximise chances of reaching heaven), there are lesser and higher cremation platforms which you can access depending on caste and wealth, and there are lots of monkeys running around, feasting on the offerings of rice and fruit left for the gods. There was also a crowd of people on the east side of the river observing the cremations – it seems to be something of a spectacle to come and see, open to the public and also to people who appeared to be on dates. Contemplating ones own mortality – romantic.

r: cremations
l: crowd of people hanging out and casually watching cremations


Sunset came, casting the temples in an eerily beautiful light, and somehow softening the whole scene. I found it really interesting and, to be honest, pretty heart warming to see that death is so out in the open, even down to the faces of the dead being on show as they are put onto the pyres, as opposed to the whole process being hidden away behind layers of mortuaries, undertakers and coffins. The grief that we saw being expressed at the loss of loved ones was no more or less than that which you might encounter at home, but somehow it felt different. More…I’m not sure of the word. If you are in Nepal, I recommend you go and see it for yourself.
We picked the right time to go.

We picked the right time to go.

Exploring our ‘hood (updated)

Now that we are all moved and settled in, I thought I should have a little explore of our district. I shall start with breakfast – a sunny cup of tea on the balcony.

First breakfast on the balcony

First breakfast on the balcony

Proceeding outside, here you can see our little house (we are on the top floor).

We are on the top floor, with the little balcony.

We are on the top floor, with the little balcony.

I took a route I had not previously tried, which I had been told was a shortcut. I arrived at a flat piece of ground with some kids playing cricket, and this view.mountainfrom summpark

Strolling past here and down into Sanepa, I found the very same view from a different perspective.

Mountains and cables

Mountains and cables

Down in Sanepa, I found myself some lunch at Bara Newari kitchen, where I had the dish shown below. It was alright, but had a bit of a funky taste and the flattened rice stuff was rather…cloying.

A Newari dinner set.

A Newari dinner set.

Arriving onto Pulchowk road, about 10 minutes from our place (as the crow flies – it took me about an hour and a half), I encountered this fellow. I am not sure that he was directly associated with the cow behind him, but I would like to think that he is its very dapper bodyguard.

suitcow

Arriving at a petrol station, I spied this valuable advice.

whiskyrisky

There are a number of small shrines in our area, a lot of which have a picture of this chap on them.

I am not sure who this chap is, and I will find out soon, but I feel he could have been painted more flatteringly.

I am not sure who this chap is, and I will find out soon, but I feel he could have been painted more flatteringly.

Maybe 20 minutes from our house is Patan Durbar Square, a beautiful collection of temples in the centre of the city. I stopped for a drink and took in the view.

Patan skyline

Patan skyline

On my way home I popped in to one of the many fruit and veg shops near us, and got something for dinner. I am not very good at this vegetarian lark yet, so I think I may have gone a little overboard.

Maybe a little much for a dinner for two?

Maybe a little much for a dinner for two?

Therefore we had our first guests – the candles are not for atmosphere, they are due to the 14 hour power cuts.

Cosy and romantic or cold and dark? I think the latter.

Cosy and romantic or cold and dark? I think the latter.

Get out of town!

Still somewhat unused to actually having a full day off together, Kelly and I found ourselves at a loss as to what to do – after much overthinking, it was decided that the best thing to do was to get out of the city for a while. Now, how best to do this? We could walk, or get a bus, or join an organised walk/run, or we could hire a couple of bikes – the latter made the most sense, as we would be able to get out quickly, and so we went on a Kathmandu Valley day trip with Everest Mountain biking, who offered a 30km easy-moderate ride north of the city.

After some getting used to the fancy bikes (the disk brakes were a bit too effective), we set off from Thamel, slowly weaving through the traffic until we crossed the ring road into relative peace and quiet.

Safety first.

Safety first.


Stopping for provisions, Kelly is sporty.

Stopping for provisions, Kelly is sporty.

Within a very short time we were well out of the city – we ascended a gentle incline for the first 12 km, emerging from the smog, going round a hill and ending up in the very rural setting of Tinpiple.

Terraced and hazy hills

Terraced and hazy hills

At Tinpiple we left the highway/paved roads, and set off on tracks in between paddy fields. It was at this point, when trying to climb steep rocky tracks, that we realised quite what we had let ourselves in for. We are rubbish at this bit – constantly choosing the wrong gears, stumbling and tumbling over, and generally embarrassing ourselves. This went on for quite some time (with a stop for Chiya and Chaana Masala in a grubby roadside kitchen – Kelly was sensible, I ate all hers), until I started grumbling that I couldn’t go on much further due to various pains. It was at this precise moment that we arrived at the Thoka Bhagawati temple, where there were two big parties going on – a marquee of sorts had been set up on one side of the temple, with music and food and chairs, but tucked behind the temple below us was a more haphazard feast with much louder music and enthusiastic dancing. This one looked more fun.

Tokha Bhagwati Temple - picturesque.

Tokha Bhagwati Temple – picturesque.

...also noisy. Very, very noisy.

…also noisy. Very, very noisy.

After resting here for a while, we set off again, having been given the option of a longer, more challenging ride, or a more gentle one. I decided that the gentle one would be best, as I felt unable to commit to the longer one – I was glad of this decision as I got on the bike and, due to the aforementioned pains, felt forced to ride sidesaddle.

Kelly, confident and with energy to spare. Not shown: me, exhausted and grumpy.

Kelly, confident and with energy to spare. Not shown: me, exhausted and grumpy.

The journey was, in spite of my grumbling, a lot of fun. We headed out onto some more tracks, up and down hills, and onto the ocasional (blissfully) smooth paved road. We got a little better at going up the hills, and more confident going down again, and once more at my point of exhaustion a coincidental halt was called – our guide, Krishna, took us unto a little, umm, kitchen? CafĂ©? Bar? where we were served with Chhaang – this is a rice based “beer” which is apparently drunk by farmers to ward off cold and make them strong. It was good, and of uncertain alcoholic percentage, but my generous bowl (and half of Kelly’s) certainly made the journey back to Thamel go much easier than I had expected. I think I would do this again, but maybe only when I can get a bigger saddle/lungs/legs.

Power lines

Two quick photos – firstly, these guys have an embassy here. I like the irony of the power lines and the dam (a) on the crest of a country which, viewed at night, is almost completely dark, in (b) a country with more hydropower potential than any other, which nonetheless only provides 10 hours of power a day.

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Secondly, any mountain view I find is invariably marred by the (currently inactive) power lines.

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Kathmandu Animals

There are a large number of animals in Kathmandu, most of which seem to be ownerless. This is especially true of the monkeys – there aren’t as many of these as the street dogs, however they make their presence felt by their thieving and squabbling around Thapithali Chowk.

Taking a well earned break from fighting and stealing food.

Taking a well earned break from fighting and stealing food.

On the more sedate side of things, the three cats that reside at Ting’s are probably the most fortunate and pampered in the city.

Ali, Milli and Chilli enjoy a nap.

Ali, Milli and Chilli enjoy a nap.

The Bagmati river, perpetually choked with rubbish, provides a veritable poisonous buffet for the sacred cows strolling around the city. There is a dairy on the north side of Thamel, and I really really hope their animals don’t roam this far.

I really hope these guys aren't the source of my yoghurt.

I really hope these guys aren’t the source of my yoghurt.

Nepalese Advertising

So I have noticed something as I have been wandering about this city. There are lots of adverts for what are clearly brands of spirits, but these are clumsily disguised as other things.

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I guarantee that this “water” is in no way refreshing

The most common disguise is “Music CDs”, as shown in the following adverts for Ruslan Vodka (sic), Romanov Vodka and Seagram’s Whisky.
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I drank this last night, and it wasn’t as terrible as I expected.

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Good question sir. I couldn’t possibly comment.

I assume that there is a ban on direct advertising of strong spirits, and these ads are examples of white how easy it is to get around that ban.

Also, it would appear that the rise of the robots is coming, from an unexpected source…

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A few days of meeting people and looking at places

I made a swift recovery from that bout of illness, and have steered clear of meat since. The following evening I was sitting and reading downstairs at Tings, and I got chatting to a Canadian called Jessica, who had just picked up the keys for her new flat – this is the one below Kelly’s colleague’s place, which we were briefly offered until it was realised that it had already been promised to someone (Jessica). During the day I had seen a flat which I thought could be the one, I got very excited about it until Kelly suggested I go back and see it again, which I did – I managed to gain access without the agent being there, and on closer inspection found that actually it had lots of issues that I hadn’t storied the first time around. Damn – I really thought the search was over.

All that was on Tuesday, Wednesday I looked at more Alice’s and wandered around a bit, and we ended up managing to find a pub quiz at Pub Maya on Thursday evening, when Louis returned to Kathmandu as well. Jess, Louis and I won convincingly, sharing a mighty bounty of NPR 1000, or a profit of about a quid each.

Louis and I stayed in the pub until about midnight, when they closed – we wandered the streets a little, met a man in a flat cap with a fantastic moustache, and I arrived home at about half 12 to find the gates securely locked. No wanting to make a noise and wake up the people in the rooms by the gate, I somehow scaled the wall, managing to avoid landing in the pile of rubbish on the other side, stealthily making my way to my room, and being met by the bemused guard at the door. I looked sheepish and retired to bed.

Friday was yet more house hunting – I think I have a shortlist of four places which I am going to take Kelly to see on Sunday, upon her arrival from Bangladesh.

By all accounts, by the way, Kelly has had a pretty shit time out there – the first night and day in fancy hotels was followed by a 5 1/2 hour drive, during which the driver’s erratic style caused tears and shouting, ending at the Jamuna “resort”, originally built by bridge workers and now, by all accounts, grim as hell. No security, not particularly clean, the phones in the rooms are inaccessible to outside callers, there is a single internet connected computer and no wi-fi, all for a conference centre claiming to have a capacity of literally hundreds of people. All this coupled with Bangladesh currently experiencing the coldest weather on record, I think this week has been…challenging.

On Friday evening I helped Jessica take some of her stuff to the flat, intending to say hi to her neighbour Jimi, with whom I have exchanged a few emails. As it turns out, he was hosting a pancake party for VSO staff in Kathmandu, and I was very kindly invited to join in. I had two delicious pancakes and met some interesting people, both occurrences being unexpected and welcome. It seems like the foreign community in Kathmandu, from my small sampling, is both close-knit and friendly. I think we will be just fine here.

More flat hunting, and I make a blasé mistake.

Yesterday was another day of formatting in the sun, followed by flathunting. The latter began with a really grimy place with Himalayan views, moving on to a nice little house in the right location, with a terrace, and also a small temple in the kitchen where the landlady would come to pray twice a day, and finally a nice little flat which was laid out in a long thin configuration, was safe and clean and had a (very small) balcony, but you had to go outside to get to the kitchen. So all of these were, yet again, not moved into. It seems like everywhere we have seen so far is good, except for one glaring oddness or failure which disqualifies it from being our future home. I did, however, meet a chap called Jez who told me about living in one of the flats, and then we met on the street soon afterwards and he showed me his friend’s place, and gave me a lift up to Thamel. So not a wasted journey after all.

Last night was Kelly’s last before she leaves for Bangladesh for a week, as well as being our last night in the Shanker, so we had intended to finish up early and spend the evening together. However, this proved somewhat difficult as the requisite thesis work was not complete, and also we had yet to pack, so we managed to walk to the end of the road, decide their wasn’t enough time to find somewhere for dinner, and then come home again and eat in the hotel. Not quite the opulent farewell we had in mind, but it had to do.

07/01/13

Today I awoke at 6 with Kelly, saw her off, and promptly fell asleep until half past ten, completely missing breakfast and causing a bit of a rush to make checkout. Enormously heavy backpack donned, I moved on to my home for the next week, Tings Tea Lounge. It is really, really nice – full of little, well, lounges and cubby holes and comfy nooks to settle down in, and I was given a welcome glass of ice tea as I settled in to…the Cupboard. That is the actual name of my room, which consists of just enough floorspace for a gas heater, then a step with just enough space for two cushions to sit on, and then a platform with two single mattresses. It is actually quite cosy and nice, just big enough for me for the time being.

The cupboard room.

The cupboard room.

I decided to walk as far as I could towards Patan, where I was viewing even more flats today. I started off in the right direction, making it as far as Exhibition road before I decided the dust was a bit much and I should get a taxi. You can see the previous post for what was necessary due to the dust.

Beard, beard, mo, mo, Mao.

Beard, beard, mo, mo, Mao.

On the way I saw the above banner, which is ( I assume) showing the communist lineage of Mao. I see him as a bit of an odd one out there, purely on facial hair grounds. I also encountered an enormous outdoor market selling (among other things I am sure) lots of dusty clothes. It had a bit of an impromptu feel to it, despite there being literally hundreds of people buying, selling, sitting and eating. This lively scene was in direct contrast to the military parade ground next door, in which I have both sat and eaten a sandwich and seen cows wandering about, which was guarded by a lot of stern armed police and soldiers. Guarding against overspill, I suppose.

Market selling mainly dust. Attached to clothes, if you like.

Market selling mainly dust. Attached to clothes, if you like.

Yet again, I saw two inappropriate houses, one of which I was very keen on, possibly mostly because it overlooked the zoo and I could see a tiger and a rhino from the terrace. I would add a picture, but the only one I took of the view had a small orange smudge in it which I doubt I could persuade you was a tiger. I also bumped into the chap who showed me round the flat with the temple in it yesterday – Patan seems like a small place.

Now. There is something I have not mentioned before, as I was not sure if I would succeed. Since leaving the UK I have not consumed any meat at all. This may not seem that remarkable, but 8 days of vegetarianism is quite remarkable considering that I genuinely don’t think I gave ever gone 24 hours without meat before in my life. As I had managed a week, I thought it was time to celebrate with a meaty meal, so I headed to Brian’s Grill House. I had read about this place in the UK, it is on the 9th floor of an as yet unfinished office building, and promised to do burgers and ribs and wings and cocktails and loads more besides. I settled in with a beer, had a chat with Kelly and Clare, and then sat near the gas heater and feigned interest in the American Football games that were being screened.

This is indoors. There is a gas heater just out of shot, and I still had to keep my hat on.

This is indoors. There is a gas heater just out of shot, and I still had to keep my hat on.

Being near the heater drew a crowd, and before too long I had met three American students from a small Christian university (which apparently is a thing) in Indiana, who were out working with a street children NGO for a month. They seemed nice enough, and earnest and hopeful, and they had 14 other classmates sitting outside on the balcony. After they went to join them I devoured a pound of enormous chicken wings, and then had a BBQ pork roll (not the “Mother & Daughter Reunion sandwich”, which was chicken with an egg and made me feel odd inside). During the eating of the roll I was joined by the titular Brian, who I quizzed about the reasons and practicalities of setting up an American grill in Kathmandu. It sounded like a logistical nightmare, but he assured me that it was easier than setting one up back in the US, as well as considerably cheaper. Whatever e reasons, he seemed content.

Anyway, after the second football game had ended (I honestly couldn’t tell who was winning or losing until the final whistle of both games), I headed back to Tings, and had a chat with Kelly who was in the fanciest hotel imaginable in Dhaka – the Ruposhi Bangla hotel, I believe. I, on the other hand, got under all my blankets in my freezing cupboard, turned the gas heater on for a bit to warm my toes, and went to bed in all my clothes. The Shanker had such good heating that we actually had to sleep with the window open, while I think it is colder in the room than it is outside. I wore a hat to sleep.

I needn’t have worried about warming the room up, however, as I awoke feeling dreadful at about half 12 and proceeded to be very ill all through the night, finally getting to sleep at about 6am, just in time for Kathmandu to wake up and start ringing bells, clattering and shouting. I think that, unfortunately, I am going to have to blame the wings – I thought they seemed a tiny bit pink, almost undetectably so, but I let the shiny clean surroundings at Brian’s lull me into a false sense of security. I guess this means I am back to vegetarianism. Damn.