Going nuts

Cycling round the world, there’s always some sort of drama. This week it involved a rush to an Indian A&E.

We were taking a couple of days rest in the mountain town of Darjeeling (where the tea comes from). The road up is bendy, eventually the tea plantations that line the hillside give way to forest, and the long views are replaced by white fog as you pass through the clouds.

We’d booked into a decent hotel to do some admin, plan our next stage of cycling to Kathmandu and eat copious amounts of Indian food.

Katie has a severe peanut allergy that she’s managed without incident for the first six months of the trip – however something in this particular dish slipped through the net…

It’s obvious something is wrong almost straight after eating.

Thirty seconds after, throat gets scratchy – heart rate starts to increase – then sneezing.

After a minute, the face starts swelling. This is where it can become a problem.

Ewan was sitting on the bed, when Katie came out the toilet with a face rapidly swelling like a beach ball.

“Jesus, are you okay?!”

“I’m having a reaction…hopefully it’ll pass”

Reactions like this aren’t uncommon; mostly they pass with antihistamine, water and sleep.

But five minutes later.

“My nose has swollen so much. I can’t breathe through it… I’m scared”

We called Ewan’s Dad, a retired GP, and explained the symptoms. He said:

“Take the EpiPen ASAP, and try and get to a hospital.”

Tears streaming and struggling to talk – and breathe. It was a bad reaction.

If your throat swells in addition to the nose it’s called an anaphylactic shock and can be life threatening.

Katie had never taken the EpiPen before so was nervous and passed it to Ewan, leaving him to jab it in Pulp Fiction style (although into the thigh, not the heart…).

EpiPen, short for epinephrine is used to open airways to the lungs. The reaction was immediate, with facial swelling decreasing and much easier breathing.

We explained the situation to the hotel staff who were brilliant, bundled us into a car and within 10 minutes were in the Darjeeling A&E seeing a local doctor. He did a few checks and basically said everything would be fine, just get rest and drink water.

The next morning it had all passed.

We’re not even sure what it was, something could have been cooked in nut oil, or touched a peanut in the kitchen or someone not washed their hands after eating nuts.

Thank goodness for the EpiPen. We have reviewed our “nut-checking-in-food-policy”, and Katie is more cautious about what to eat now. We’re just glad it’s happened now and is hopefully out the way for the rest of the trip. Also a relief that our medicine stocks are working as they should.

This is not intended to put anyone with a severe allergy off travelling, in fact exactly the opposite. So far we have gotten away unscathed, but this has reminded us not to relax too much when in foreign countries.

Before leaving Darjeeling we got up at 4am to watch the sunrise above the clouds, which was spectacular, and a nice end to a trying few days.

Aside from dodging nut related disasters, we’ve been consolidating our place as Z-List Bangladeshi celebrities.

We’ve been featured in five Bengali newspapers and websites including, the Dhaka TribuneNews BangladeshThe World TimesRising BD, and The News SE.

Favourite quotes include from the World Times who explain how after leaving Dhaka we:

… visited Savar National Mausoleum and paid homage to the 1971 martyrs.

Which makes our cycle ride sound like something William and Kate would do on an official state visit. In actual fact the mausoleum was closed and we got shouted at by a security guard – but never let the facts get in way of a good story!

Other classic quote from The News SE claims:

Mr Ewan Paterson and Katie Halliday choose only 31 countries of the world in their tour list and Bangladesh is one of those. This is very good news for Tourism of Bangladesh.  If we can promote this kind of tour and make the entry to Bangladesh easier, many of such tourist will be interested to visit Bangladesh.

Hopefully our visit will give the Bangladesh tourism sector the boost it needs, and next time we visit we’ll look forward to seeing a thriving backpacker community…

Our time in Nepal hasn’t been quite so high profile, but no less whacky.

We pedalled into Nepal from India, got our visas and put our watches forward by 15 minutes (is there really a need?). The difference between Bangladesh and India is 30 minutes.

We had a 160km day to get our first stop in a town called Rajbiraj. We were spinning along nicely, and had about 20km left to go when a guy on a motorbike pulled up beside us and started chatting.

He introduced himself as Sutikshan, and said he lived in Rajbiraj. We told him where we were staying and he explained:

“Let me go and negotiate price with them. If they see you (white people) they will charge 3x the price of me. I will say you are friends of mine.”

Seemed a decent offer so we agreed.

True to his word, he came out and had bagged us a room for 600 Nepalese Rupees (£4.60).

“Okay, if they ask, tell them you are old friends of mine from Kathmandu”

As we walked in (with Sutikshan) the manager looked surprised:

“Oh! How do you know each other?”

“We’re old friends from way back in Kathmandu…”

We all laughed as we walked up to our room.

Sutikshan came up the room and, took a call on his phone:

“My family would love to meet you, will you come over to my house for tea and food?”

“Sounds good!”

We showered and headed round to the house where we met his sister, Swati, cousin, brother, mother and father who warmly welcomed us and offered us tea.

We were sat in the front room, Ewan chatting to the guys about football, and Katie to the mother and Swati.

Swati brought the tea over to Katie:

“You drink tea – and then you try on sari?”

“Okay sure”

Next thing, Swati had whisked Katie next door to the girls’ room:

“Please wear this, it is my sister’s wedding dress”

“Okay sure”

With the help of the mum and Swati, Katie undressed and tried to get the wedding dress on.

This was unfortunately impossible, as by Nepalese women’s standards – Katie is a giant.

Although Katie is 5ft 4inches and a modest UK size 10, Nepalese women have much smaller frames in general, and the top of the sari wouldn’t close.

After much laughing and discussion, the mother who spoke no English rushed round to the neighbours house to get a larger top which solved the problem.

Next step was the bangles, which again unfortunately didn’t fit into Katie’s giant sized hands. No problem – another trip down the road to another neighbour produced some larger bangles, which just about squeezed on without breaking a knuckle.

Now fully dressed, Swati exclaimed:

“Okay, next is makeup. I am training to be a make up artist. I have never done a white persons make up before”

So the full wedding makeover ensued, complete with skin whitener – a key part of the brides “look” on wedding day.

All across Asia it’s actually quite hard to buy sunscreen or moisturiser without skin whitener in it. It seems weird to us that people would want to whiten their skin, but it probably seems strange to them that Europeans sit in the sun for hours and risk skin cancer to make our skin darker.

Once the face makeup was done, Katie was presented to the guys in the front room. Ewan, who had no idea any of this was going on, literally almost didn’t recognise her.

There were many photos taken with Katie on her own, Katie with mother, Katie with the girls, Katie with the kids… You can see them all here in the Nepal Album.

Then it was the turn for the Ewan and Katie photo, Katie in full Hindu wedding bride dress – Ewan in … tracksuit bottoms and a jumper.

Pointing at Ewan “No. You are ruining photo, you must also wear the clothes.”

So, again whisked through to the back room, Ewan was fitted out with the father’s wedding clothes, complete with headscarf.

Now the picture was complete, Ewan and Katie both in full Nepali Hindu wedding gear, dressed up and made up like real life Barbie and Ken dolls.

We got the full family together in the front room. No one is smiling as it “softens the face”, so here we are:

We then ate a fantastic home cooked dinner, with our hands as is custom, still in our full get-up and chatted to Sutikshan and family.

We had the tour round the house. There was a staircase, which instead of leading to the second flood, led to … the roof. There was no door or anything, just a giant hole in the top of the house open to the elements. When it rained the water would come pouring down into the hall.

Katie asked when it would be finished, Swati explained:

“We don’t know. We cannot afford to finish it at the moment. My two sisters are getting married and, me and my younger sister will get married too some day. My family has to pay 1.5 million Nepalese rupees dowry for each daughter, and we don’t know how we are going pay to finish the house.”

Dowry is a sum of money, or goods, that are given from the bride’s, to the groom’s family when they marry.

1.5 million NR is £11,700 – per daughter. In Nepal it’s an astronomical amount of money.

Marriage in Nepal is a fascinating subject.

In a small town called Kamalamai, a very smart and friendly young man called Prabin befriended us. Prabin offered to show us round town that evening which we gladly accepted. He explained:

“In Nepal you need to marry not only within your religion, but also within your caste (similar to class). I’m Hindu, so would need to marry another Hindu, and I’m also high caste, so am not supposed to marry anyone from a lower caste.”

“It’s not illegal, but you could be disowned by your family if you married someone from a different religion or caste”

“For me, I don’t care what religion or caste you are, but for a lot of older people it is still a big deal. For example, my grandparents generation, you couldn’t let a low caste person into your house, or touch you – and definitely not touch your food.”

Prabin explained how many old traditions are still prevalent, particularly in the rural, and uneducated areas.

“Some villagers, they think that widows are witches. If their son gets sick, and there is a widow next door they blame her and treat her very badly”

“In the olden days, widows were treated much worse. There is an ancient tradition in Hindu called Sati whereby when a husband dies and leaves a widow, when the husband is burned (on his funeral pyre), the widow should get on as well” (and be burned alive).

“This was only made illegal in Nepal 70 years ago. My grandfather’s grandmother died in this way”.

Thankfully literacy rates among widows, which were 15% in 1981, rose to 75% in 2011, according to this interesting article which illustrates the above points.

Here’s us and Prabin.

Prabin invited us for breakfast on the day we left where we met his mother and father who have an inspirational story:

“My mother and father were married by arranged marriage when my mother was 13, and my father 20. My father was a teacher and recognised how important it was for women to get an education, and that it wasn’t right to have children when she was so young”.

“He educated her, which was uncommon for women at that time, and she graduated with her diploma when she was 20. That was when she had me. She is now running in the local election next month and is campaigning to help get other women educated and stop the stigma against widows.”

Here’s Prabin’s mother and father.

For many people in rural Nepal, education is still far off – they rely on subsistence farming to grow their food.  80% of the population is involved in agriculture, and it constitutes 40% of GDP.

Farming Nepal style is medieval by any modern standards. There are no tractors; fields are ploughed by ox pulling a plank of wood. The crops are picked by hand, and dried in the sun. The cattle is herded down the highways from A to B by a couple of men with sticks.

It’s sort of like how you might manage the cabbage patch in your garden, doing everything by hand – but on a scale that needs to feed an entire country. It’s tough, back-breaking work in the baking sun.

The picture below beautifully sums up the developed nation, meets the developing world:

Blonde girl from developed country on futuristic bike with many gadgets stops at the roadside to check directions on smartphone, meanwhile farmer from developing country herds his cows down the highway with a stick, in his pants.

Much of Nepal’s population still live in poverty, this article from 2014 quote a UN report that places Nepal 157th from 187 countries on the “Human Development Index”.

Almost a third of the population live of less than $14 USD per month. It’s impossible to not feel sorrow for the people who live such hard lives, the only reason being they happened to be born in a country where life is tough.

Conversely we feel a bit ridiculous, almost guilty, cycling by on our fancy bikes with all our gadgets, which no one would bat an eyelid at back home.

Even for someone as well educated as Prabin, the difference in currency is hard to comprehend. On explaining that a Pizza in London would on average cost maybe £10 (1,300 NR) he was astounded. Here we can both eat an enormous all-you-can-eat meal for less than £2 – combined.

Praban’s response to explaining a phone contract that costs £22 per month:

“Wow, what do you get paid? Must be like $500 USD a month??!”

Praban explained the public transport is so over crowded because the drivers care more about profits than safety.

Of all the overcrowded buses in Bangladesh, India and Nepal – this is the winner for least safe. Bizarrely – near enough every bus in Nepal is branded either Nike or adidas (see front). This is a Nike one… maybe they think it’ll make them go faster?

The drivers here are actually pretty good, in comparison to the rest of Asia, and the road surface on the whole has been great – with the exception of this small pothole!

Accommodation has been super cheap. On the whole, you get what you pay for. A lesson learned on the first night – always check the bathroom!

On entering Nepal we pulled up at a guesthouse, which looked semi respectable. Ewan went in to do a recce and negotiate price. Room looked decent and clean, served food and good location. Price was 600 NR (£4.60) so seemed a winner.

Bike unpacked, and up in room we went to the toilet to find the opening scene from a Saw movie.

It was too late and tired to change hotel, so we just “held it in”, paid up and made a quick getaway the next day.

Katie has now taken back control of hotel bookings…

Thankfully not everywhere was like that.

Our favourite place was a small town on the outskirts of Kathmandu called Dhulikel. We stayed at a Guesthouse called Tashidelek, ran by a man called by Prem.

Prem was a former trekking guide and full of life and energy.

“It was always my dream to open a guesthouse, and now here it is!”

Prem and his family, including his son Zidane (“Zidane is my favourite football player, the Real Madrid team with him and Ronaldo was the best!”), looked after us brilliantly, and fed us up after lots of climbing into the mountains.

Dhulikel was so good we spent two days with Prem, and on the morning we left the skies cleared and we got a stunning view of the Himalayan Mountains.

Our trip in Nepal may have gone unnoticed by the national media…but the kind people and wonderful scenery have definitely not gone by unnoticed by us.