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Spinach, tigers and the invisible tarantula... - By Rebecca Wicks

“A brave heart and a courteous tongue. They shall carry thee far through the jungle, manling,” says Rudyard Kipling. He forgets to mention that a strong stomach helps too. But perhaps Mowgli wasn’t raised in Chitwan National Park in Nepal, and perhaps he never ate the suspicious looking wilted spinach I had to deal with a second time round, when it reappeared before me in the toilet.

Stomach upsets aside, a brave heart and a courteous tongue were definitely necessary for the majority of our group trip to the jungle last week. Bravery was called upon as we wandered openly through an eerie Pans Labyrinth, brushing the trees and vines aside like wide-eyed, intrepid explorers with giant sticks. The guide, a small, tubby man in a sort of policeman’s sweater, carried no gun, no tranquilizer dart set, yet informed us merrily that not one, not two, but 35 wild tigers were roaming freely in our general vicinity, and should we come face to face with a charging rhino, we should probably run.

A courteous tongue was required in Kathmandu, a city in which the service is so bad, you’re never entirely sure that the food you order is ever going to arrive, if you even manage to contact anyone working at the restaurant you’ve been sitting in for ages in the first place. I waited over an hour for a bean-burger the night after “the spinach incident”, by which time my stomach had turned inside out and back again. We abandoned a round of coffee prior to leaving for the airport, having waited 30 minutes, only to be presented with brews resembling boiled yak’s milk, rather than anything caffeine based. For a country that produces coffee by the kilo, it’s surprisingly difficult to come by a good cup in Kathmandu!

Anyway, I’d be lying if I said the eight of us strapped on those backpacks (or in my case, a pink wheely number from Carrefour - darling) thinking luxury would be following us to Nepal. We were there to get dirty, to get out of our comfort zones. In the jungle lodge (where we spent two nights surrounded by chirruping grasshoppers and random rhino snorts) I even had a strange urge to see a tarantula. I’m not sure what I’d do if I saw one, except cry and turn blue, but in a funny sort of “face the fear” way I wanted to see what would really happen if I did. The little cabins were so damp through lack of any means of heating, that at first I thought they’d laid wet sheets on our beds! They were perfect spider stalking grounds. Almost sadly, the camp was a tarantula free zone. Or at least, they took one look and scuttled off again. I was probably scarier than them, come to think of it, having not washed my hair or plucked my eyebrows for five days.

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of your privileged lifestyle isn’t it. The cold and damp weren’t entirely inspiring when the spinach came back to visit me and whilst hugging my porcelain friend, I couldn’t help but think that if this was something that happened as often as I suspected it did, they could at least have put a nice rug on the floor� maybe even some toilet-mitts so I wouldn’t have to touch anything nastier than the remnants of my lunch, now hanging in my hair. But then, sitting around the camp fire, laughing with my friends, no interruptions from technology, I realized a bit of “getting back to basics” was doing me the world of good � even if my texting skills are far better than my game of chirades.

And really, who needs luxuries when the beautiful simplicity of life shines before you in a hundred tiny mountainside villages, visible through a bumpy bus window? We saw it all in Nepal. Such worlds exist, we discovered, still rooted in the basic and very bare necessities of life. Baloo the bear might not have come out to see us, Shere Khan the tiger stayed hidden with his 34 buddies and only a handful of monkeys rustled the treetops for our entertainment, but the real wonders of Nepal sit on the outskirts of the lush green jungle. Lambs frolic on doorsteps, chickens peck around gravel paths and happy children run through fields of yellow flowers and golden hay, with no knowledge whatsoever of Singstar or reality TV stars� they know every star in the sky above them though, probably.

Of course, there is poverty in Nepal, as with everywhere, but a lot of the time those who don’t appear to have much, actually have everything. Many people of Chitwan in particular, are self-sufficient citizens of nature, who would stare blankly if we told them of our “roles” as writers, marketing execs, graphic designers� and not just because of the language barrier! In the grand scheme of things, who cares? (Except the faltering economy and my local HSBC).

I think a few of us were a bid sad we didn’t spot a tiger (or a tarantula), and I’ll never look at spinach in the same light again, but when you head to the mighty jungle and the animals refuse to play, there are plenty of other places to look for an eye-opening experience in Nepal. And yes, sometimes even looking at the bottom of a toilet can leave you with a spot of gratitude. Believe me, this country doesn’t care much about toilets, really.

Fly to Kathmandu from Sharjah with Air Arabia, from 1320 dhs return.

Posted: 11 December 2008

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