Sunday, October 18, 2009

Kathmandu: The First Few Days

I will start off by admitting that at some point yesterday I lost a little notebook which I carry in my back pocket. Among its contents were my notes of each day's activities, so that I wouldn't forget them when it came time to write a blog. I'd like to think my memory isn't so bad that I can't remember what I did four days ago. At the same time, we've been keeping ourselves quite busy these past few days and I have a lot to report. At the very least, I'll do my best to remember the juiciest bits.

The days have somewhat blended together, but I know for that we began our second day here by following one of Lonely Planet's excellent walking tours, which led us  through one of Kathmandu's ancient market neighborhoods. As we ventured through various alleyways and busy commercial streets, I kept trying to locate all of the various little temples and shrines that were mentioned in the book. Sometimes, they were easy to find. But other times, we had to get lost a little bit before we could find it. As I've mentioned many times before, getting lost in big cities is one of my favorite past times, and Kathmandu has some amazing little streets and courtyards.

The tour eventually led us down one of Kathmandu's oldest commercial streets. Here, we had to wade our way through the intense traffic. It was a brutal combination of pedestrians, motorcycles, trucks and bicycle rickshaws.

At one point, one of Nepal's notorious Sadhus (holy men) approached me out of nowhere and put a smudge of red powder on my forehead. He then gave me a little flower and did the same to Mimi. Then he asked for money and said we could take his picture. This perplexed me. Why is a man who has dedicated his life to wandering the earth in search of spiritual enlightenment so concerned with collecting cash payments for photos with tourists? Everybody's gotta get paid, I suppose. Here is a picture of the mystery Sadhu:

Eventually, we made our way over to Durbar Square, which is Kathmandu's ancient city center/royal complex and is teeming with temples and other interesting sites. Traveling through Asia, one can easily come down with a case of what I like to call Temple Overload. One could argue that if you've seen one temple you've seen them all. Sometimes this is true, and sometimes it isn't. Kathmandu's Durbar Square, however, offers a very unique temple experience. It gave me new perspective on what a temple is and what it can mean to its people.

Many temples throughout Asia are deservedly behind a protective perimeter of concrete walls. This turns the temple into a place of refuge; a quiet place that where you can retreat to when the city becomes to much. On the other hand, this can sometimes make a temple feel a bit sterile. Add an admission fee and a busload of Italian tourists, and what used to be a temple now feels like a museum. A city's best temples often suffer this fate. They no longer feel like they are serving their original religious purpose, and pious locals often choose to go somewhere else instead.

Kathmandu's Durbar Square was completely different. Although there was an admission fee, there was no gate. The ticket simply grants you access to an entire neighborhood of Kathmandu. Once inside Durbar Square, I quickly realized that nearly every building in sight was hundreds of years old. Temples and shrines abounded. The interesting part though, was that beyond this ancient architecture, Durbar Square was no different from any other neighborhood we had seen. Traffic was heavy and people were on the move. People went about their daily business as if the temples weren't even there. More often than not, the structures were used not as a place of worship, but as a place to hang out and watch the city go by. In essence, nothing was off limits. It wasn't a museum. So instead of staring at the buildings from afar, people were just hanging out in and on them. They were part of the city.

The downside to this system is that many of the buildings have deteriorated considerably over the years. Some of the buildings are over 1,000 years old and I was allowed to go inside and touch anything that I wanted. It was cool, but I guess there is something to be said for conservation as well. Another downside to this free system is that the whole area was grossly infested with "tour guides." I can't say whether or not these guys would have been a good tour guide, but I can say with certainty that they were very good at annoying the hell out of me. How many times can I tell you that I don't want a tour guide before you leave me alone? At one point, nearly at the end of my patience, I told one of the tour guides to simply, "LEAVE US ALONE." He responded, "Hey man, we're not the Taliban, we don't kidnap people." The absurdity of this comment caused my blood to boil. Did I imply that I was afraid he was going to kidnap me? I felt that he had unfairly played the "race card." Luckily I've come to learn that cooler heads prevail and let it go.

Speaking of cool heads, while at Durbar Square we were fortunate enough to hang out with some more Sadhus. Again, these guys seemed far more concerned with lining their wallets with tourist rupees than they were with reaching Nirvana. They looked totally awesome though and Mimi and I joined in on the fun. Jimmy Buttons, if you are reading this, you have some serious competition out here in Nepal. Look at these dreds!

The next day we got up early went straight back out on the "sightseeing" circuit. The first stop was Swayambhunath, a very interesting and lively Buddhist complex that sits atop a hill just on the Western outskirts of the city. It wasn't too far from where we were staying, so we decided to walk. This took us through a rather drab, dirty part of town, but after about a half hour, we arrived at the base of the hill. All we had to do then was climb the stairs.

Swayambhunath is known for its very large Stupa and panoramic views of Kathmandu. A stupa is a large white dome with a gold top, and it is often the center piece of Buddhist temple complexes. The stupa here was quite large and impressive, as was the view of Kathmandu from the top of the hill. It was also interesting to watch local Nepalis being blessed by the resident monks. But let's be honest. The real reason Swayambhunath is such a popular tourist destination is because the entire hill is home to perhaps two hundred incredibly adorable wild monkeys. Who doesn't like monkeys? It is for this reason that Swayambhunath is more commonly refered to as the monkey temple, at least by Westerners and Nepalis who work in the tourism industry. So lets forget about the stupas and gompas and all that and enjoy some pictures of cute monkeys.

After about an hour of laughing and pointing at monkeys, we had finally had our fill. We walked down the opposite side of the hill and tried to locate the Kathmandu Natural History Museum, which was supposed to be a quirky, off the beaten track destination. Indeed, we were definitely the only people in the small museum. In fact, it seemed as if we were the only people who had visited in weeks, and that nothing had even been touched or altered since the late 1970s. Inside we found a bizarre collection of animals that had either been stuffed or preserved in fermaldahyde. This included including snakes, birds, carnivores, and pretty much anything else you can imagine. The highlights were definitely the jarred rhinocerus fetus and petrified "elephant scat." Quirky indeed.

The museum was pretty small and after about a half hour we got on our way and left 7th grade science class behind us. After a bit of debate, we decided that we wanted to check out the Durbar Square in Patan. Patan is the second largest city in the Kathmandu Valley and as a result of population expansion is essentially part of Kathmandu. The only thing separating the two cities at this point is a small trickle of a river. After an intense negoation with a taxi driver, we were on our way. Needless to say, we immediately hit traffic and the ride was a bit longer than we had hoped.

It was well worth it though because Patan's Durbar Square was amazing. It offered equally impressive ancient pagodas and courtyards, but half the tourists and would-be tour guides. Mimi took some amazing photos of both of the Durbar Squares which we will hopefully get uploaded soon. I will make a post once those photos are online. While we were walking around the square we noticed a group of people huddled around something. At first, I assumed it was another Sadhu flaunting his dreds. But upon closer inspection we realized it was actually a group of Spanish tourists that had somehow launched their own variety show. It was a bizarre sight, watching all the local Nepalis stare with confusion at this group of Spaniards belted out classic Spanish tunes and jokingly passing around a hat for donations.

After Durbar Square we followed another one of Lonely Planet's walking tours. This one led us through another amazing series of alleyways and courtyards. As in Kathmandu, it was remarkable how these ancient religious shrines and statutes blended seemlessly into the neighborhood. It was also an interesting walk because even though we were only a few blocks away from Durbar Square, we quickly became the only tourists anywhere in sight. Local residents often seemed surprised to see us there. We found this to be true everywhere in Kathmandu. Go just the slightest bit off the tourist track and you're guaranteed to be the only Westerner in sight.

At this point, we had been out and about all day and as the sun began to set we realized it was time to get back to Thamel. We were in no mood to negotiate with another taxi driver so we decided to have a go with the intimidating but everpresent minibuses. As I mentioned in a post long ago, I first became aware of this mode of transportation back in Cairo. A minibus, which is also sometimes called a microbus, is basically a privately-owned van or minivan that ferries people around town. A driver sits up front, and as always, his assistant screams the bus' destination out the window and collects money. For a long time we had been intimidated by these buses. What if we misunderstand the man and end up on the wrong side of town? What if he tries to overcharge us? Minibuses are a strictly local affair and tourists (read: white people) rarely, if ever use them.

But today was the day. After an initial round of confusion and doubt, we eventually found the a bus that we were reasonably positive was headed in the right direction. The driver waited until all the seats were filled and we were on our way. Then came the crush. This van put the phrase "like sardines in a can" to complete shame. As the blocks went by, more and more people climbed into the van. The yeller/money collecter was always the last man back into the van, and would often jump back through the open side door long after the driver had hit the accelerator. As bodies climbed passed me and eventually on top of me, I realized it was time to count how many people were in this vehicle. At its peak, the van, which by Western standards might seat 8 or 10 people, had packed in an impressive if not entirely uncomfortable 26 bodies.  

The ride, while not particularly comfortable, was a complete success. We were dropped off within walking distance of our hostel and had paid a tenth of what a taxi would have cost us. Having broken down our fear of the minibus, we were ready for more. In fact, we've been taking them everywhere since.

Before we had left the United States, Mimi had heard from a friend about a wonderful guest house just outside of Kathmandu. The Schehen Guest House is attached to a large but modest Buddhist Monastery in a surburb of Kathmandu called Bouhda. We were able to get a reservation a few days before, so on our fourth day in Kathmandu, we packed an overnight bag and headed out to Bouhda for three nights.

To our delight, the Schehen Guest House has been completely amazing. Inside a walled monastery complex, the guest house is serene and quiet. There is a nice garden courtyard and a decent vegetarian restaurant here as well. We are right next to the monks' sleeping quarters and can hear them chatting during the evening. One morning I was woken up quite early by a man doing what I believed were incredibly loud yoga breaths. It went on for an hour! Kathmandu can be a very overwhelming city, and the Schehen Guest House was the perfect antidote. Here is a picture of the main monastery building:

The main attraction in this area is the Bodhnath stupa, which is one of the world's largest Tibetan Buddhist stupas and is a major pilgrimage site. The stupa dates back to 600 AD and was quite interesting to walk around. Everyone walks around it in a clockwise direction and around evening time many local people come out and stroll around it in circles. As a result of the stupa's importance, numerous monasteries have popped up over the years in the surrounding area. Our monastery was about a five minute walk down a back alley from the main stupa. The Bodhnath Stupa forms the center of a town square, and in this regard it almost reminded me of an Italian plaza.

After checking out main stupa we decided to check out one of the nearby monasteries. It was here that I had an experience that left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth. We walked up to the third floor and checked out the various paintings and prayer areas. At this point a monk approached us and offered to take our picture. We obliged and then he took us to a side area and gave us good luck charm and let us light a prayer candle. It was all very nice, and we knew he might ask for a donation. But it caught me a little off guard when he asked, "Do you have American money?" We said no, to which he replied, "OK. 500 rupees please." This is equal to about $7 USD. We looked at him like he was crazy and gave him 40 rupees and left the monastery. As we walked down the stairs, Mimi and I talked about how absurd it was for him to ask for so much. After all, we had already put a small donation in the general donation box, which we assumed  would go to the monastery as a whole and not just one monk.

That experience, in combination with some other obversations, has led me to rethink my assumptions about Buddhism. I think that many of us in the West an unrealistically positive, romantic vision of what Buddhism is, and in particular Tibetan Budhism. Unlike Catholicism or Evangelical Christianity, we think of Buddhism as an uncorrupted, decentralized religion that is centered on individual growth and not on (financial) servitude to a God or institution. We tend to think of Tibetan monks as very pure and selfless people. I know that personally whenever I see a monk in an airport or somewhere wearing his maroon robe and sandals, I think to myself, "That monk looks awesome, I bet he is very at peace with himself." But in reality, monks could be just like you or me. Around Bodhnath, it is not uncommon to see a monk blazing through the alleys on his motorcycle or showing off his newest ringtone. I'm not saying that monks should be like the Amish, but it definitely surprised me.

The role that money plays in Buddhism also definitely caught me off guard. We all know that Marx said that religion was the opiate of the masses, and sometimes Buddhism, despite its claim of not technically being a religion, falls rights into that mold. Why else would poor Nepali people come to these temples and throw their money at the monks and Buddha statues? I understand that in many religions and cultures money is often equated with good luck, but I can't help but think that the money might be better spent elsewhere. On the flipside, if this is bringing people happiness and a bit of hope, then perhaps it is money well spent. But when it has evolved into a monk asking me for $7 because he let me light a candle, then there is a serious problem.

That being said, as we wandered further away from the main stupa, we found another monastery that painted a different picture. Here, perhaps fifty young monks (some as young as nine or ten) were diligently reciting their texts and passing them along down a line. The sound of all of their voices reciting the lines with differing intensity was very intense and mezmorizing. Many new thoughts popped into my head. Were these monks orphans? Or did their parents have to pay for them to be accepted into the monastery? Were they happy to be there? What is the relationship between the older monks and the younger monks? Is molestation a problem in Buddhist monasteries the way it is in the Catholic church?

We spent the rest of the day relaxing in the garden at our guest house. I also bought a little book written by a Buddhist scholar about how to lead a tolerant, peaceful life. I know that any system with such rigid guidelines and required devotion is not for me, but I still feel like there is much to be learned from Buddhism and at the very least, perhaps I can reduce my stress level! 

I am now only three days behind in my reporting. I am trying my hardest to keep up. The last few days have been totally amazing. In preparation for our trek, we have been venturing out into the more remote areas of the Kathmandu Valley for some mountain bike riding and hiking. Along the way we saw some amazing temples that were totally unscathed by the tourist hordes, wandered through several amazing villages, said Namaste (hello) to dozens of shy but friendly rural Nepalis, set off firecrackers with a group of young boys, and even waded through a river! I will write about it all in more detail as soon as I can find the time. Until then, hang loose!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I've been in Kathmandu for three days and we've been out and about for all three days. Always the eternal question, Where do I begin?

Perhaps I should begin with two very big decisions I've made in the past week. The first is that I've decided to go back to China in December and find a job teaching English. I'm in touch with several different agencies and it is my hope to live somewhere in the Southwest of China, perhaps even Yanghsuo! The prospect of returning back to America only to find that I don't have a job or an apartment just isn't that appealing. It's downright daunting. On the flipside, I had a great time in China, there is a huge demand for English teachers, and it will allow me to continue this adventure of a lifetime. The downside? I won't get to see any of my friends for a very long time and I won't get to be with my family for the holidays.

The other decision isn't really quite as big, but is still super exciting. Mimi and I have signed up for a sixteen day trek through the Himalayas. This means that we will literally be walking on foot through some of the highest, most beautiful mountains and valleys in the entire world. We actually spent a good portion of the last few days going to different trekking agencies in order to learn more information and find the best deal. We also met with a couple of different guides before we settled on one that we felt comfortable with. Our guide will responsible for keeping us on the right path, as well as finding us the best accomodations each night. He also will (hopefully) be able to take us to some "off the beaten path" destinations along the way and teach us something about the local cultures and areas.

We are going on what is called the Annapurna Circuit Trek. It's highlight is undisputedly the Thorung La Pass, which at 5416 meters is one of the highest passes in the world that doesn't require mountaineering gear. To put it another way, we'll be at a higher altitude than anywhere in all of North America. Later in the trek, we will also be passing through one of the deepest valleys in the entire world. The Annapurna region also has incredibly diverse cultures and people. Like with so many of the best things in life, I'm simultaneously nervous and excited. I was a little nervous about the safety aspect of the trek, but after doing quite a bit of research and talking with our guide, I feel much more comfortable. And besides, you only live once. I came all the way to Nepal, and it just wouldn't make any sense not to trek through the world's tallest mountains. We leave on October 19. Sadly, this means there will be no blog updates from October 19 to November 3. I'm bringing a notebook though and plan to write journal entries each night.

Now, what else? Well, Kathmandu is a very interesting place. As a Westerner, it is impossible to escape the tourist district known as Thamel. My immediate comparison was with the other "tourist ghetto" I recently visited, Th Khao San in Bangkok. In many ways, the two areas are very similar. Thamel is bustling with backpackers, trekkers, spiritual seekers and what I call "lifers," meaning people who came to Kathmandu and then never left. The area is also swarming with a vast array of budget accomodations, bizarrely comprehensive restaurants (more on that in a bit), trekking shops, hash dealers, book stores, Buddhist/Tibetan craft stores, and bicycle rickshaw drivers. There is even the occasionally Nepali person as well. Hehe.

But somehow, despite the tourist vibe, Thamel didn't immediately rub me the wrong way. Th Khao San instantly struck me as an invasive, inappropriate neighborhood that had gotten out of hand. Maybe the shock just isn't as bad the second time around, but I actually kind of dug the vibe in Thamel. Instead of booze buckets, the bars here limit themselves to a pint of beer. There is no air of decadence. At the same time, Thamel is a lot of fun. Wandering through the bookstores, I had a blast flipping through the coffeetable books filled with amazing pictures of the Himalayas. It's also been fun chatting with other travelers about their recent trekking adventures. The other Westerners here don't rub me the wrong way as they did in Bangkok. In Kathmandu, everyone seems to be on the same page. Everyone seems to be on the same budget as well.

Like in any tourist area, the most annoying thing about Thamel is the hawkers and pushers. I've become incredibly skilled at brushing aside aggresive would-be tour guides and taxi drivers, but the guys in Thamel take it to a whole new level. Everybody and their older brother works for a trekking agency, and they all have business cards that they want to unload on you. Everyone and their younger brother also apparently deals hash in Thamel, and the dealers here are aggressive and in your face. They literally pop out of nowhere and come right up to your face, whispering in the sketchiest voice possible one long, convoluted word, "Smokehashishmarijuanasmoke," or some combination thereof. Sometimes, I can see them preparing to saunter up to me from a block away. In these instance, I can prepare my negative reply thoroughly. Othertimes, they come out of nowhere and are somehow in my ear before I can adequately prepare a rebuttal. In any event, I always ask myself, who would be stupid enough to buy drugs off the street in a foreign country. Given by the number of dealers, the answer is apparently everybody.

Sometimes I wonder if I like Kathmandu so much because the things that annoy me about big Asian cities have simply faded into the background. Upon arriving in China, drawbacks such as air and noise pollution were quite bothersome. But after a few weeks in China, I hardly even noticed all the noise. Then when I got to Kolkata, it was culture shock all over again. But once again, the noise and garbage have begun to blend into the background. But if I take a minute and observe Kathmandu's ludricrous traffic patterns, it's absurd frequency of honking, and its disgustingly smoggy skies, it becomes clear that Kathmandu is one of the most chaotic and apocolyptic cities we've been to yet. I'm just used to it, I guess.

Another funny thing about Kathmandu is the food. I first became aware of this trend in Darjeeling, but it's gotten completely out of control in Kathmandu. Allow me to explain. In Thamel and other tourist areas, the norm for restaurants is to serve literally every kind of cuisine known to man. Restaurants in Kathmandu bring the concept of international cuisine to a whole new level. On the surface, a restaurant may appear to be geared towards Indian or Tibetan food. But a quick examination of the menu reveals that the restaurant not only offers the standard Indian curries and Tibetan momos (dumplings), but Italian lasagna and spaghetti, as well as Chinese chow mein and Kung Pao Chicken. Flip to the next page and you'll find a breakfast menu which offers a Denver omelettes, Belgian waffles, and in one instance, Huevos Rancheros. I promise you I'm not exaggerating. If you get lucky you might even find a Nepali dish or two.

So, how is the food? On the whole, not very good. Despite the much welcomed variety of food, a restaurant that is cooking Saag Paneer in one pot and pasta Bolognaise in another just isn't going to be that good, no matter how you slice it. Still, it's been fun eating here and the Huevos Rancheros were pretty damn good.

I have much more to write about, but my eyes have become heavy with sleep. Hopefully I'll have time for another post tomorrow, and I can write about some of the temples and museums we've visited in the last few days. Good night. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

From Darjeeling to Kathmandu

Wow. Simply put, Kathmandu is totally awesome. I love it here! But before I get to my time in Nepal, it would make sense to write a little bit more about Darjeeling and our voyage from India to Nepal.

Looking back at the time we spent in Darjeeling, I realized that we didn't really do all that much. The funny thing is, it didn't really matter. Darjeeling was just one of those places that is amazing to be in even though there aren't very many "sites" to see. You just kind of walk around and soak up the vibe. The main attraction for most people is gazing at the mountains. That was a problem for us though because we didn't get one day of good weather while we were there.

We spent six nights in Darjeeling. That's longer than we've spent anywhere else on this entire trip. And yet, I can't really figure out where those six days went. Of course, I was sick for half of it, but even after I got better, we didn't really push ourselves to do that much. I've spent the last five weeks aggressively travelling and doing as much as I possibly could wherever I was. I may never get to come back to some of these places so I'm not just gonna sit on my butt and let the time go by. Looking back, during our time in other big cities, we would usually head out at about 9 or 10 in the morning and often wouldn't come back to our hotel until 8 or 9 at night. But Darjeeling was all about catching up on sleeping and relaxing. And I think we did a pretty good job of that.

Darjeeling is also very interesting because of its politics. There is an active independence movement that can really be felt throughout the region. Darjeeling is the biggest city in the hilly region in the north of West Bengal. The majority of the people are Gurkhas, which is from what I understand an ethnicity that is very similar to Nepali. In other words, the people here have infinitely more in common with other Himalayan people in Nepal, Sikkim and Bhutan than they do with the ethnic Indians that run the government of West Bengal.

As I looked into the history, I learned that the Gorkhas have been pushing for self governance for over a century now. At this point, they aren't asking for their own country. They just want their own state within India. From my perspective, it seems like a pretty reasonable request. Within the last twenty years, several new states such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have broken away from other states, so the concept of Gorkhaland isn't totally out of the question. The region is only part of West Bengal as a result of British colonial policy. And like so many other post-colonial situations, ethnic tension still festers long after the colonizer went home.

"We Want Gorhkaland" banners were ubiqitious throughout Darjeeling. Groups of young men and woman walk around in green Gorkhaland track suits and red berets. It wasn't a military uniform. It was more like a national pride uniform. Ms. Tranquility was also very vocal about Gorkhaland. It is a bizarre thing then that a signigicant portion of Darjeeling's economy is based on tourism, and that the vast majority of these tourists are Indians coming up from the south. It wasn't as if ethnic violence was about to break out, but there was always a slight bit of tension in the air between the Indian tourists and their hosts. For example, although she didn't say it in so many words, Ms. Tranquility made it abundantly clear that Indians were not welcome to stay at her hotel. "We just can't trust them," she said.

Mimi and I kept thinking back to the fight between the Gorkha bullies and our Indian driver. At the time, we sided with our driver. The guys from the other jeep were clearly jerks who had a bone to pick. They were the aggressors. But perhaps in this microcosm moment, they felt justified in their aggression. They see Indians as neo-colonizers. They feel like second-class citizens. They feel like they are being culturally and linguistically suffocated. Obviously they weren't justified in hard-charging our Indian driver for 200 Rupees. They were clearly in the wrong. But I thought back to when one of the other Indian passengers explained to me, "They are just local boys trying to prove their power." There was something condescending in his explanation. It implied that they didn't have a valid claim to the power they were trying to obtain.

This one little skirmish isn't a perfect microcosm of the political situation. But it was still a very interesting moment and I didn't really recognize the political significance of it at the time. I didn't even know what Gorkhaland was before I came to Darjeeling and I certainly didn't know that there was a century-old political movement behind it. India is a vast, complicated country that we as Americans know very little about. Reading the newspapers here I am learning about things that just don't ever make it to the United States. For example, as we speak, the Indian government is contemplating using massive air force retaliation against a group of violent Maoist rebels that are terrorizing the countryside in an unstable province called Bihar. In the past few weeks alone, the Maoists shot sixteen farmers in cold blood and also beheaded a local police officer. Before I came to India, I didn't even know where Bihar was!

Anyways, I am officially rambling. Where was I? Oh yeah, I wanted to talk about the last few things we did while in Darjeeling. Ready for a big topic shift? We went to the zoo! We got to see some really cool monkeys, tigers, and birds. Within the zoo grounds is also a mountaineering institute that was founded and run by Tenzing Norgay, a native of Darjeeling who along with Edmund Hillary was the first man to reach the top of Mount Everest back in the 50s. The mountaineering institute is still active, but also has a historical museum that I found pretty interesting. The coolest part was a model replica of the Himalayas. People in Darjeeling love Tenzing Norgay and many things are named after him.

Traveling from Darjeeling to Kathmandu took one full day. Inititally, we had planned to take a bus all the way, which would have taken two full days, including a seventeen hour bus ride through Nepal. After asking around, we decided it was worth the money to take a short plane trip from the Nepal border into Kathmandu. To do this, we had to get up early and take another shared jeep back down the through the hills to a crummy town called Siliguri. From there, we took another share jeep to the border. The driver of the second jeep was definitely one of the crazier drivers I've ever had the pleasure of riding with.

As he weaved through the traffic with reckless abandon, he told us how he thought Darjeeling was a dirty place. "Siliguri is so much more beautiful! Look!" I looked out the window and saw one of the uglier cities I can remember. You can never discount hometown pride though.

The border itself was virtually non existant. When we arrived at the border town, our driver pulled over and told us to go through immigration. Immigration turned out to be a little bamboo hut on the side of the road. The border guard was definitely not guarding any border, for there was nothing to have stopped us from just driving straight on through to Nepal.

It was the same on the Nepali side. We actually had to look around a bit before we found the immigration office. It was off on the side of the road and there was a big fat cow hanging out on the grass in front of the building. We went inside and got our Nepal visas, but again, there was nothing from stopping us from heading straight onto Kathmandu. We decided to play it safe and go the official route.

After getting our visas, we took a final taxi to the airport, which was about half an hour away. It was definitely the smallest airport I've ever been to. We had the pleasure of flying Buddha Air, which is one of Nepal's domestic airlines. I was very stoked about flying on an airline with such a cool name. I must admit though that I became quite jealous when I found out that the other option in Nepal is Yeti Airlines. What cool names!

The flight was short and uneventful. It was still cloudly so we didn't get to see any mountains from the airplane. We arrived in Kathmandu in the late afternoon and a nice man from the Kathmandu Peace Guest House met us at the airport. I think it's so funny that I can pay $6 for a room and have someone waiting for me at the airport holding my name on a sign. Only in Asia.

That's enough for now. I have a lot to say about Kathmandu, but I'll leave it for another post.   

Friday, October 9, 2009

Darjeeling: Toy Trains and Close Shaves

I am currently sitting in our room on the third floor of Hotel Tranquility. The hotel essentially sits atop Darjeeling, which in turn is one of the tallests "hill stations" in the region. During the colonial era, the British would flock here from Calcutta to escape the blistering heat and disruptive rains of the monsoon season. Thinking about it, this must have been an easy no-brainer for the British. In Darjeeling, the air is cool and clean and the city bustle is far tamer than in the plains. The jaw-dropping views of the Himalayas don't hurt either.

I spent the first two days here so sick that something fundamentally amazing never really sunk in for me. We are literally in the foothills of the Himalayas! The world's tallest mountains are within striking distance. In Darjeeling, as far as these mountains are concerned, the star of the show is Khangchendzonga, which is the world's third tallest mountain. Khangchendzonga is perhaps 70 miles north of Darjeeling and its snow capped peak allegedly inspires awe as it manages to tower over Darjeeling even from such a distance.

The problem? As I sit in our room on the third floor of Hotel Tranquility and look out the window, I can see maybe 15 meters worth of the "view." This view essentially consists of the roof of the building across the street. After that, it's pure white. White as far as the eye can see, which isn't actually very far, since the white is what's disrupting the view. That's the problem. We've been here for over three days now, and Darjeeling has been trapped inside a hazy fog for nearly the entire time. On a rare instance, the immediate fog has cleared to reveal a beautiful valley, which in turn is also covered in clouds and fog. At these moments, the view was indeed quite attractive. But even in these times, the clouds in the far distance also remained, continuing to thwart our attempt to enjoy the mountainous might of Khangchendzonga.

OK. Speaking of white, I just told told a little white lie. There was actually a twenty minute period yesterday morning when Mimi was able to catch a glimpse of the mountain, albeit through a maze of clouds and fog. I almost didn't see it at first because the white of the snow blended nearly perfectly with the white of the clouds. But sure enough, off in the distance was an enormous (or to use the parlance of our times, "gi-normous") mountain. Would I describe it as towering? The verdict is still out. I'm still waiting for a clear day.

View from Hotel Tranquility. Darjeeling, India.

Khangchendzonga peaks out from behind the clouds. Darjeeling, India.

Yesterday was the first day that I felt well enough to actually go out and do something. We didn't do all that much, but I finally got a chance to walk around the steep, winding streets of the city. As I mentioned, the Darjeeling was built along a very steep and dramatic hillside. This feature completely dominates the layout and architecture of the city. You can't really go anywhere without walking up or down a hill. If you want, you can take one of the cement staircase shortcuts that cut through the streets and buildings, but we haven't really figured these out yet. The way the buildings work is very interesting as well. What might be the third floor of a building from one perspective could actually be the first floor from another perspective. Are we entering from the top of the building? Or is it just the first floor of a building with three levels of basements?

Darjeeling is also considerably more laid back than Kolkata. The motorbikes and jeeps that hog the streets here still honk their horns like crazy. But it is with less intensity than in Kolkata and somehow less obnoxious and intrusive. Then again, maybe I'm just getting used to it. The people here are also quite laid back. Shop owners don't follow you down the street here in attempt to get you into their shop, and if you do go into a shop or look at a stall, the owner doesn't aggresively hover over you the entire time. I bought a pair of wool socks and the experience was completely stress free! 

Yesterday had several highlights. The first interesting thing we did was to take the Toy Train from Darjeeling to neighboring Ghoom, a small town about eight kilometers down the road. I think I got the date wrong in a previous post. The Darjeeling Himalayan Railway was officially opened in 1881 and was actually for many years the world's highest railway system. Sadly, they are phasing out the steam engines in favor of diesel engines, and the train we took was a diesel.

It was very fun to ride the train as it weaved along the side of the mountain. At Ghoom, we checked out the tiny museum dedicated to the train's history and learned that the system had recently become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The train had a pretty modest top speed, but it didn't really matter. The thrill of riding on one of the world's highest train systems was enough for me. Here are some pictures.

Dogs sleeping on the tracks.

Toy Train curves along the mountainside.

Train atop the Basatia Loop with flowers.

Mimi hops on board.

And now for the second interesting thing I did yesterday. For weeks, I have been contemplating trimming my beard or perhaps even shaving it off entirely. In an effort to pack light, I had had left my electric beard trimmer back in New York. So if I was to maintain a presentable appearance, it would have to be at the mercy of a local barber. Well, as we walked back through town after our train trip, we stumbled upon a small but clean looking barber shop. After a few minutes of debate, I decided to go for it.

As many of you probably know, I've pretty much had a beard for the last eight years of my life. You might even say that I've had a beard ever since I figured out that I could grow one. I hate shaving and I think a beard suits me well. On a rare occasion, I will give myself a clean shave, but mostly I just rely on my electric beard trimmer. Not today though. Today, I was going to get a shave and a haircut at a veritable Indian barber shop.

The barber, a young and friendly man, took care of my hair in under five minutes. He chopped with verocity but accuracy and left me with a short but decent haircut. The shaving, however, was a slow, cautious and elaborate endeavour. There were so many different steps to the process that I eventually lost track. I think this sums it up though: an initial scissor trim, a round of water spray, several different cheek massages, several rounds of talc brushing, about ten minutes of lathering, a power failure, two rounds of actual shaving, another water spray, a mystery balm, and finally, some aftershave and cologne. Needless to say, it was a damn good shave. To top it off, he threw some gel into my hair and gave me a stylish image perfect for the modern Indian man. Here is a before and after:



I have quite a bit more to write about, including my thoughts on the vibrant political movement here for an independent Gorkhaland, but this will have to wait for another post. Over and out. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Windy Roads and Stomach Bugs: My Time in Darjeeling

Before anyone jumps to conclusions, it's important to know that as I write this, I am feeling significantly better than I did this morning. That being said, the last 48 hours or so have been a real rollercoaster so let me start from the beginning.

It all started on Saturday night. We had come back from the hotel after the tabla concert and free dinner buffet. Mimi was complaining a little bit about her stomach, but it didn't seem anything out of the ordinary. After all, the food was delicious and both of us had gone back for seconds and surely over eaten. When I woke up in the middle of the night by the sound of Mimi wretching in the bathroom, however, it became clear that she had more than a slight stomach ache. Mimi spent most of the next day sleeping and recuperating while I went out and ran some errands and did a bunch of Internet. When I came back to the hotel, Mimi was doing significantly better. Vomiting seemed to have expelled most of the bug before it could really get to her.

I on the other hand, began to feel slightly nauseous and just a bit uneasy. I chalked it up to being nervous about the impending train voyage we had planned for that evening, as well as just from being worn down by the intensity of Kolkata. I rarely experience nausea, but when I do it is usually the result of anxiety or emotional panic. Surely I wasn't getting sick as well? 

At 8pm, we took a taxi over to the Sealdah train station. Our train's scheduled departure wasn't until 10:05, but we wanted to get there early to make sure everything went smoothly. As we expected, the station was crowded and chaotic. Beggars and makeshift tent dwellings lined the perimeter of the station, which reeked of urine and filth. The inside of the station was marginally better, but utterly swamped with people. People in lines. People sleeping in groups on the ground. People boarding trains. My stomach continued to bother me and the overwhelming nature of the station was only adding to the anxiety. Luckily, we finally found a more secluded waiting area that was specifically reserved for people with more expensive tickets. (I won't go into detail now, but we rode in AC2, which was comparable to the sleeping cars we had taken in China. Below that in descending order is AC3, Sleeper, Reserved Seating, and Unreserved Seating.)

At 9:30, we boarded the train. I was feeling increasingly uncomfortable and although the sleeper car was clean and comfortable, I was not looking forward to spending ten hours on a train. I kept thinking to myself: I never feel nauseous like this. This isn't normal for me. Once the train got on its way, we got to bed early. I normally find the  rumbling of the train somewhat sleep inducing, but this time it only made me feel dizzy and uncomfortable. As the hours passed by, the night devolved into a somewhat pyschedelic, confused journey of insomnia and nausea. No question about it, I was sick as a dog.

At one point I woke up, convinced that the sun had come up and we were almost there, but when I looked at my watch it was only 1am. It would be difficult for me to describe the thoughts I was having, but I was somehow convinced that my bed was infested with landmines, and there were only certain parts that I could touch. I knew that I was getting sick, but the delerium was turning concern into panic. 

Eventually, the sun came up in earnest and I woke Mimi up to tell her how awful I felt. She didn't comprehend my stories of landmines, but assured me that as soon as we got to Darjeeling that we could get some rest and everything would be ok. The only problem was that the train only went to New Jalpaiguri. To get from NJP to Darjeeling would require a three hour "shared jeep" ride up into the mountains. My stomach was churning but I wasn't about to use the bathrooms at the train station. I knew whatever my stomach had in store for me would not be pretty and a comfortable, clean bathroom was a necessity. As a precaution, I had taken some medicine the night before to ensure I wouldn't need to use the bathroom, and so far it was working smoothly.

When we arrived at the train station's parking lot, my adreneline kicked in and I became focused on finding us a good jeep. Yes, I felt crummy, but an Indian train station is not a place where you can let your guard down. We kicked into high gear, brushed aside the guys asking for Rs 2500 (about $55) and tried to locate one of the shared jeeps we had read about in the guide book. Eventually we settled for one that cost Rs 150 per person. The driver was a small ethnically Indian man who seemed slightly less obnoxious than all the other pushy jeep drivers.

When he led us to his jeep, it was already filled with nine other passangers, all of which I believed to be Indian tourists. A married couple and their baby shared the front seat with the driver, four people squeezed into the middle row, and two large men sat in the back row. After tying our bags to the roof of the jeep, the driver told us to hop into the back row. Are you kidding me? There was clearly only room for one. But we (like the other passengers) had already paid him and surely if we switched to another jeep it would be a similar situation. So, despite my intense nausea and discomfort, we crammed into the backrow of the jeep and got on our way. Welcome to hell. 

I spent the next hour holding on for dear life as our jeeped weaved through the traffic of New Jalpaiguri and its sister city, Siliguri. The traffic was an interesting combination of other jeeps, motor bikes, pedestrians, and cows. At several instances, I thought I would collapse and have to vomit out of the window, but miraculously, I held myself together. The road gradually cleared up as we left the cities behind us. I couldn't see much though because the back row was elevated, which limited my vision to just the immediate sides of the road. At one point, a soldier hitched a ride by clinging onto the back of the jeep. Apparently, this pushed the jeep beyond its weight capacity because after ten minutes we blew a tire and pulled to a stop on the side of the road.

Personally, I was extremely relieved because this allowed me to get out, stretch my legs, and urinate in some nearby bushes. The driver managed to change the tire in under five minutes, and before I knew it we were crammed back into the jeep and back on our way. After about half an hour, we began to slowly climb into the mountains. Darjeeling, afterall, is over 2000 meters above sea level. The Lonely Planet guide had said the trip would take 2.5 hours, but we had already hit the two hour mark and by my calculations we weren't even half way yet. As we climbed, the road became increasingly bumpy and potentially treacherous. At certain points, it even devolved into a one lane dirt road that hovered over steep cliffs. I kept my cool though and eventually we arrived at a town called Kurseong. The road here, despite the increase in traffic, was often only one lane and we had to wait for long periods of time to let cars going in the other direction pass us. More cows and pedestrians added to the chaos.

And then, something potentially disasterous occured. About half way through Kurseong, we had come to a standstill as the traffic in the other direction passed us. As a very large truck attempted to squeeze by us, I noticed it tilt dangerously in the direction of our jeep. I've seen trucks drive on angles before, but this truck's position seemed downright perilous. Sure enough, as the truck inched forward, its weight became too much and the truck fell onto our jeep. It happened too fast for me to react, but Mimi later confessed to me that she seriously thought the truck would either crush us or knock us off the road. Instead, it just sort of stayed there, leaning against the upper right frame of our jeep. Miraculously, however, our driver pulled forward and inched away from the truck, which somehow righted itself and continued on. Crisis averted. 

At this point, I thought we were in the clear. But it turned out that the three local men in the jeep behind us were convinced that the collision with the truck had damaged their jeep. The evidence: a miniscule scratch on the hood of their jeep. How this could possibly be our driver's fault, we didn't understand. Surely the person to blame would be the truck driver. Moreover, just about every jeep on the road was banged up beyond belief. I mean, these were not smooth roads. But these guys had a bone to pick. As the smallest of the three (it's always the little one, isn't it) screamed at our driver through his window, I began to sense that this confrontation wasn't going to end quickly. I tried to stay calm though because I knew their wasn't anything I could do. We just had to stay out of it and let things run their course. At the same time, the guys in the other jeep were being super aggressive, and at one point the little guy grabbed our driver, as if to yank him out of the car.

Eventually, the traffic in front of us loosened up and we began to move forward. I thought maybe at this point the guys in the other jeep would give up, but instead the little guy screamed something at our driver and then jumped onto the back of our jeep and clung on as we drove through the rest of Kurseong. After about ten minutes, the jeep behind us managed to pull in front of us and block off the road, forcing our driver to pull off into the Indian equivilent of a rest area. At this point, everyone got out of the jeeps and all three of the aggressive guys started pushing our driver around. I couldn't understand anything they were saying, but it was pretty clear that they wanted our driver to pay for the miniscule scratch mark on their jeep. Again, this was despite the fact that it clearly wasn't our driver's fault.

This whole time I was trying my hardest to keep my stomach and nausea in check. The ongoing scuffle and potential fist fight had forced me to clear my mind and stay alert, but at the same time I was battling with what felt like the flu. I asked one of the other passengers what he thought was going on, and he suggested that it was simply local boys weilding their power over our Indian driver. The area around Darjeeling has a very ethnically diverse population, and this was when I realized that there is real ethnic tension between the Tibetans/Gurkhas of the North Bengal Hills and the ethnic Indians of the South Bengal plains. Whatever the case, the "local boys" were being unreasonably aggressive. To put it more bluntly, they were being total assholes and basically bullying our petite driver into handing over some cash. In the end, our driver caved and forked over what looked like two or three hundred rupees.

The whole thing was a bit unnerving. I personally never felt in danger, but it made me realize that I definitely wasn't in Kansas anymore. Our driver used this break to patch up the blown tire, and after half an hour we were back on the road again. Fortunately, one of the two men in the back row had decided to stay in Kurseong, which gave us some much needed room. But unfortunately, after about twenty minutes another man hitched a ride with our jeep and crammed into the back row with us. Back in hell.

One of the coolest things about the road to Darjeeling are the toy train tracks that weave along the road. A toy train uses a very narrow gauge of maybe two or three feet, which enables the train to snake its way up the steep mountain. The tracks were initially laid in the 1860s by the British and still function to this day. The trains were originally propelled by steam engine, but these are being gradually replaced with diesel engines. A short two hour "joy ride" from Darjeeling to the small town of Ghoom still utilizes the steam engine and is one of the top tourist attractions in Darjeeling.

Anyways, keeping my eyes on the train tracks as they weaved back and forth across the road helped me keep my mind off of my upset stomach. After four long hours, we finally arrived in Darjeeling. We had a reservation at the highly recommended Hotel Tranquility. Our room was clean and cozy and I passed out almost immediately upon arrival. I could finally turn my adreneline off. Still, my sleep was restless and uncomfortable and after a few hours I was ready to make my first trip to the bathroom.

I will spare you much of the details of the ensuing twenty-four hours, but it will suffice to say that I'm pretty convinced I broke the record for most trips to the bathroom in a twenty-four hour period. I had clearly come down with a serious bug. Fortunately, the woman who runs the hotel is an absolutely amazing person. It's bizarre that I still don't know her name, but she has been an utter saint to me. I will refer to her as Ms. Tranquility. After an uncomfortable evening of mild stomach cramps and unpleasant trips to the bathroom, I eventually fell asleep. It was poor sleep though, and I often had to make return trips to the bathroom in the middle of the night.

When I woke up at five am, my pain had reached unprecedented levels. I hadn't felt this sick since I was a little kid. I had become delerious and incapacitated, but most of all, quite scared. My stomach cramps had gone from mild discomfort to extreme levels of pain. I woke Mimi up and told her it was an emergency. I needed to get to a doctor immediately. Mimi went to see if Ms. Tranquility was awake. Fortunately, she was and she immediately took charge of the situation. The next hour is a bit of a blur, but I know that we took a taxi down to a clinic. There, I met with a doctor who checked me out and prescribed me a set of medicine including antibiotics, probiotics, antibacterials, anti-cramps, anti-nausea, and oral rehydration packets. I was writhing in pain while at the clinic and wanted nothing more than to take the medicine and get back to our hotel.

Fortunately, the medicine took effect quickly and I spent the rest of the day recuperating in bed. The doctor insisted that I only eat rice and dhal (yellow lentils) for the rest of the day. Ms. Tranquility's assistant was nice enough to cook for me all day, for which I was quite grateful. That being said, I don't think I ever want to eat bland rice and dahl ever again. Yesterday was tough. The stomach cramps abated, but the incapacitating bowel movements and flu-like aches kept me in a state of true discomfort. Gradually, I began to feel a little better. At this point, I'm by no means back to 100%, but it's clear that I don't have anything more serious than a wicked stomach bug. Still, it took a real toll on my body. I slept for a solid 10 hours last night and I think this really helped me recuperate. After all, I had enough energy to make it out to the internet cafe!

So it's been a bizarre time so far in Darjeeling. I've been here for two days but haven't seen anything. Besides the 5 am trip to the clinic, this is the first time I've left the hotel. Supposedly, our hotel window offers a marvelous view of the surrounding valley and mountains, but the whole city has been under a giant fog cloud since we've arrived. Just walking around this morning I got much better vibes from Darjeeling than I did in Kolkata. As I mentioned, the population and culture here is very diverse. I'm not entirely certain about the distinctions between the various ethnicities, but I do know that Gurkhas and Tibetans make up a good chunk of the population here.

Today we witnessed a big protest in the downtown area where people were chanting and marching for an independent Gorkhaland. Indeed, there seems to be a real rift between the Indians and the local population in Darjeeling. Ms. Tranquility, as nice as she is, made no point of hiding her distrust and hatred for Indians. It seemed pretty clear that Indians were not welcome to stay at her hotel, and many hotels around town are explicitly advertised as foreigner-only establishments.

Mr. Tranquility is a tireless wonder woman whose plate can never be too full. In addition to running the hotel, she is also a full-time school teacher at a boarding school for underpriveleged children. In addition to her own two children, she also is a foster parent for a Korean/Israeli boy whose father died when he was only eight months old and whose mother still lives in Korea. It was a very bizarre story that I will have to go into another time. I am so grateful to her for looking after me. I am also super grateful to Mimi for taking care of me while I was so sick. Hopefully I can get back on my feet in the next couple of days and we go out and actually do something.

That's it for now. Until next time, godspeed.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Four new posts

Be sure to scroll down a bunch because I just uploaded four new posts. Two of them are mostly pictures from China.

Tablas and Cockroaches

Wow. Well my time in Kolkata has taken some interesting turns. We leave in a few hours for Darjeeling, a place I am most excited to visit. Towering Himalayan mountainscapes, delicious tea, a 19th century "toy" steam train. Darjeeling has it all! But for now, I'm still in Kolkata. It turns out that Kolkata isn't all that bad. In fact, last night ended up being one of the most fun nights we've had during this entire trip.

It all started with me mentioning to Mimi that I thought it would be fun to check out some live Indian music. Luckily, our hotel provides a free daily newspaper, and Mimi spotted a listing for a musical performance that very evening. The performance was to feature "Maestro Mallar Ghosh," a distinguished virtuoso of the tabla. The tabla is perhaps the quintessential Indian drum. If you heard the tablas, you would recognize their sound instantly, especially the enigmatic sound of the largest tabla, whose deep bass tone drops and rises as the drummer moves his hand around the surface of the drum.

After a bit of asking around as well as some internet research, we finally figured out where the performance was being held. It wasn't too far from the internet cafe, so we went over in the afternoon to see if tickets were still available. Surprisingly, we had trouble finding anyone who spoke English, but we saw the performers loading in their drums, which reminded me of being on tour. Ah, I thought to myself, even Indian tabla virtuosos have a 3:30 load-in time and have to carry their own gear. We concluded that the concert was free, so we went back to the hotel to chill out for a bit.

When we turned up again at six-thirty, the hallway was filled with well dressed middle-aged Indian people. We felt a little out of place, but we're made more welcome when a nice man offered us some complementary tea. After finishing our tea, we took off our shoes and entered the performance room. Suddenly, I was in heaven. Just minutes ago we were trudging through the filthy streets of Kolkata. Now, we were in an air conditioned paradise where shoes were forbidden and everyone sat on the floor on nice, clean carpets. It was a perfect room for a musical performance, and I felt very comfortable and at home.

The performance itself was absolutely amazing. In addition to the lead tabla player, there were also two additional tabla proteges, a woman who read a poem, a woman who sang a beautiful song, an accordian player, and a cymbal/triangle player (sucks for him.) Lastly, there was one more man who didn't seem to have any instrument, but held an uncanny resemblance to Ron Jeremy. This man's purpose remained a mystery until the very last song of the performance, at which point he busted out a very cool looking electric violin and played a truly amazing duet with the main tabla player. Here is a picture. I call it "Indian Ron Jeremy Plays the Electric Violin."

The tablas are an amazing instrument because they offer such a variety of both pitches and timbres for such a tiny drum. In other words, the drummer can alter both the way the drum sounds as well as the pitch of the tone. Additionally, the drummer can utilize all ten of his fingers. This enables the drummer to achieve remarkably fast and intricate rhythms. The songs often started out with a simple beat that I was able to follow, but evolved into rapid, complex pieces whose rhythms I became lost in. As I closed my eyes and absorbed the music, I began thinking about how tabla drumming is in a way similar to technical death metal. Not only do both genres involve supreme musical technicality, but both offer songs that become nearly impossible to follow. It is at these blurred movements of confusion where you can allow yourself to become lost in the overall vibe; a moment where you can pick out little bits and pieces of rhythm and melody, making it all worthwhile.

Once the concert had concluded, we were amazed to find out that the hosts of the performance were offering a free dinner buffet. I tried to make a donation but the man who had earlier offered us some tea politely reclined. The food was in my opinion that best we had eaten so far in Kolkata. The dishes were creamy and sweet, which are the main characteristics of Bengali cuisine. I couldn't believe how wonderful the evening had turned out!

After the performance we went back to our hotel. We have been staying at a bizarre place called Hotel Broadway. The word on the street is that budget accomodations in Kolkata are utterly abysmal, so we opted to stay at a slightly nicer place. Indeed, Hotel Broadway has a few perks such as a free newspaper in the morning, large rooms with high ceilings, and a very attentive staff. Additionally, the hotel has a unique vibe that is reminscent of the 1950s. It's almost as if I'm on the set of a film noir. The attached bar/restaurant only adds to the character. The dim lighting, the ancient whirring ceiling fans and the "down and out" clientele made for an interesting scene. It was almost, but not quite, remniscent of Twin Peaks.

But of course, this is Kolkata, so Hotel Broadway couldn't possibly be all peaches and cream. The downside is that the sheets on the beds are stained, hot water only comes in buckets, and the bathroom is not exactly my favorite place to hang out. I'd much rather do my business at a mall in Hong Kong. From what I understand, even this is a huge step of from some of the more budget hotels, which are notorious for their bed bugs, unsafe locks and disinterested staff.

But last night, my opinion of Hotel Broadway really took a turn southward. While using the bathroom, I spotted a little bug crawling across the bathroom floor. It sort of looked like a baby cockroach, but I couldn't be certain. I decided to play it safe, and I gave it a good whack with a rolled up newspaper. About twenty minutes later, while Mimi and I were brushing our teeth, Mimi let out a righteous scream. It turns out that Mama cockroach had come looking for her lost little boy, and she was none too happy. Mama was, hands down, without a doubt, the biggest fucking cockroach I have ever seen in my life. Just thinking about it makes me shudder with horror. As Mimi repeatedly yelled, "Kill it! Kill it!" I knew what I had to do. My mission was clear. But I also knew I had to build up quite a bit of courage because I knew there was no way this thing would go down on the first whack. It would take repeated blows to take out Mama. Indeed, it took about five or six solid blows to the head before she went down. As I was saying, I am very excited to get of out Kolkata!

At the same time, I'm glad that I came here. Seeing poverty like this first hand is a very sobering experience. It's hard to put it out of your mind when a woman holding an underfed child follows you for a two blocks, grabbing your arm and pleading to you for money. Watching kids literally play with garbage because they don't have any toys is upsetting. At the same time, it's not that everyone here is poor. There is definitely a middle class. But everywhere we went, it seemed that the middle class was stepping over or around destitute people who live on the streets. The amount of people literally sleeping on the middle of a sidewalk really surprised me. Rickshaws are also still fairly common here. Many of the rickshaw drivers don't have shoes. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw an elderly man running barefoot through the street carrying a well-dressed couple on his rickshaw. What century am I in?

I've been giving Kolkata a pretty hard time over these past few entries. Perhaps I've been too harsh. This city definitely has character. I suppose it all just came as a bit of a shock. I knew that Kolkata was poor, but perhaps I was just slightly underprepared.

Before I go, I will leave you with some pictures from our time in Kolkata. I didn't take any pictures of the poverty I witnessed because this felt strange and exploitive to me.

Ancient blue buses with decaying colonial building in the background. Kolkata.

Delicious thali. Kolkata.

Victoria Memorial. Kolkata.

Sweets! Kolkata.


Bangkok. Where do I begin?

We arrived in Bangkok in the afternoon. I was giddy with excitement, but also a bit tired because of the early flight. Our first Bangkok experience was taking a taxi from the airport to Banglamphu. Banglamphu is a relatively traditional neighborhood that's close to many of the attractive religious sites in Bangkok but far away from the commercial and business districts. It's perfect for budget travelers, and as a result, it contains Th Khao San, which is one of the most notorious "backpacker ghettos" in all of Asia. I'll tell you a bit more about Th Khao San in a bit.

Our taxi driver was a relaxed, middle-aged man sporting one of the most bad-ass haircuts I've seen in a while. The main feature of his 'do might be considered something of a Thai Fashion Mullet. It was shaved close on the sides, with a poofy top and a well groomed extension that flowed well past his shoulders and down his back. It was so extreme that I didn't even notice the blonde highlights at the tip of his mullet until Mimi pointed them out to me. The natural gray streaks only added to the bombast of this man's hairdo.

Anyways, it was a very pleasant taxi ride and I was quite surprised at lack of potholes on the roads and the overall smoothness of our voyage. After about an hour we arrived at Boworn BB, the oddly named guesthouse we had picked out a week before. When I had called to make a reservation, I had spoken to a cheerful man with an extremely high voice. The man turned out to be a woman who owns and operates Boworn BB with a few other ladies. I never caught her name, but she was a great host. Nothing but laughs, smiles and funny stories. The place itself was also very clean, spacious and simple. The best part of all though, was that it was a solid four blocks from Th Khao San. This meant that we were far enough away from the all-night parties and drunken tourists, but close enough to the tourist-friendly commerce, such as bookstores, travel agencies, and most importantly, street food.

Indeed, the very first thing we did in Bangkok was look for delicious street food. Almost immediately, we stumbled upon stall after stall of mysterious but potentially delicious street snacks. Before we knew it, we had sampled some veggie noodles, deep fried taro and tofu, coconut rice inside grilled banana leaf, and some bizarre chewy fried green balls. The best thing of all though was the fresh orange juice, which at seventy-five cents for a 16 oz bottle is perhaps the bargain of the century. The juice, which comes from golf ball sized green oranges, is actually more akin to tangerine juice. The words sweet and tangy, while applicable, don't even come close to doing this juice justice. This juice was phenomenal.

Eventually, we made our way over to the infamous Th Khao San to check it out. Th Khao San (which foreigners often call "The Khao San Road") emerged as a destination for backpackers in the mid-1980s. I won't go into the whole history, but at one point, it was a much needed modest home away from home for backpackers and budget travelers making their way across Asia. It was a place you could get some toast and eggs or a cold European beer after weeks of traveling in Cambodia. But over the years, this one little street gradually morphed into something both hideous and hilarious. How to describe it? Backpacker Mardi Gras? A booze-fueled Oriental wonderland for trashy Europeans? Whatever you want to call it, it was definitely a scene.

Packed to the brim with foreigners of all varieties, but primarily inhabited by what I like to call Euro-hippies, Khao San is in essence one giant party zone. Its main offerings included overpriced Western food, drinks such as "booze buckets" and tableside mini kegs, and hippie-inspired clothing. Additionally, either a throbbing techno beat or the voice of Bob Marley was never out of earshot. Sub-par street food rounded out the mix. Khao San Road reeked of decandance and indulgence. Sure, people seemed like they were having a good time, but what did all this have to do with Thailand? The whole thing reminded me of what I imagine Cancun, Mexico to be like during college spring break; a place where Westerners can indulge and party on the cheap. A place where the local culture is merely a backdrop for the party. It was as if the foreigners wanted to be in Thailand, but they didn't REALLY want to be in Thailand. Who goes to Thailand to watch British football matches? But, alas, it is what it is. The whole thing was very bizarre and overall worth avoiding. At the same time, we found ourselves taking more than one stroll down Khao San just to soak it up. What can I say?

We spent the next day exploring a very sizable chunk of Bangkok, including many of the neighborhoods along the Chao Praya, which is Bangkok's main river. The first place we checked out was the Amulet Market, an indoor collection of countless stalls selling tiny metal and stone figurines that ward off bad spirits. It is my understanding that Thai people are very superstitious and amulets are very important. Many of the vendors were closely examining the amulets under magnifying glasses. What they were looking at I wasn't really sure. I bought a tiny little figurine of an old, skinny man sitting cross-legged. I'm not sure about its significance but it was only twenty-five cents and seemed kind of cool.

We then worked our way south and checked out a few of Bangkok's top religious sites. Our first stop was Wat Phra Kaew, which was very overcrowded with tourists and also charged a steep admission price. In a move that may have been unwise, we decided to skip it and check out some other places. So we moved onto a second, much smaller Wat (temple) just a few blocks away. This one was nearly deserted and we basically had the place to ourselves. The highlight was a series of intricately decorated doorways that were lined with various jewels.

The next place we went to was Wat Pho, a huge temple complex that takes up several city blocks. As we walked around, I was able to get a few good pictures of the towering stupas (spires) that dominate Wat Pho.

Although walking around the various buildings was pretty cool, the highlight was definitely Wat Pho's infamous Reclining Buddha, which is in fact the largest reclining Buddha in the world. Photos don't really capture the enormity of this sculpture, which runs the length of an entire building. Well, here is a picture anyways:

We then hopped on the very fun and efficient river ferry and got off near Bangkok's Chinatown. Chinatown was historically Bangkok's main commercial district and to this day is known for its overcrowded, narrow and chaotic alleyways. Frankly, I had seen enough places like this in China, so I was not super impressed with this neighborhood. As it often is with me and Mimi, the highlight for us came during a snack break. In of the alleyways in Chinatown, we found a man selling what we believed to be fried quail eggs. Maybe they were from some other bird, but they were little and had spots on them. They almost looked like they could have been reptile eggs, although I knew they weren't. The man had a nifty little cooking device that yielded quarter sized sunny-side up eggs that were both cooked and shaped perfectly. For 30 baht (about a dollar) he gave us ten of these eggs, which were topped off with a quick spray of soy sauce. Here is a picture of his stand:

The last site we visited was another Wat located at the southern tip of Chinatown. This one was called Wat Traimit and it features the world's largest gold Buddha. The Buddha, which is ten feet tall and made of over five tons of pure gold, was a site to behold. Amazingly enough, we were the only tourists in the whole place! The rest of the people were either resident monks or local people who had come to pray.

We finished our day by taking the ferry back up the river and getting a drink at a rooftop bar that offered a view of Wat Arun, one of Bangkok's most iconic landmarks. The drinks were overpriced, but the view was wonderful. The one thing that concerned us were the dark clouds looming above us. Sure enough, before we got a chance to leave, the rain started coming down, and it came down hard. And guess what? It never stopped! It just kept pouring and pouring, and eventually we had to run through the streets to catch a taxi back to the hostel. Before the rain came down though, I was able to get this picture of Wat Arun:

The next day we explored even more of Bangkok. I won't go into all of the details, but one of the highlights was a neighborhood called Thonburi, a quieter, more residential area across that lies across the river. There, we found two Wats that were completely off the tourist trail. The first, Wat Prayoon, was dominated by a beautiful white dome that powerfully reflected the sun. Besides two friendly guards, we were literally the only visitors in the entire complex. Here are a few pictures.

The second temple, whose name I am unable to track down, featured a forty-five foot Buddha image. Again, we were the only tourists in the temple. We sat in the back as a steady stream of worshipping Thais came to pray to the Buddha, make a donation, and ring a gong. Before we left, I made a small donation and rang the gong, which had a great tone.

Another highlight of that day included a visit to Jim Thompson's House. Jim Thompson was a former OSS agent who fell in love with Thai culture and moved their permanently after the war. He bought some land in Bangkok and built a beautiful house that actually combined six different traditional Thai homes. The guided tour was a bit dull at times, but the architecture and artifacts inside the house were pretty cool.

We spent the final two days of our time in Thailand on an island called Ko Samet. Ko Samet is about four hours away from Bangkok and features some beautiful beaches. The trip down was made awesome by the quirky double decker tour bus we rode down in. At about 7:45 in the morning, while the bus was still idling, the driver came into our section and turned on the TV. As a clearly pirated video of Michael Jackson performing circa 1993 popped onto the screen, the driver turned to us and let out a big smile. "Michael Jackson!" he said, as the volume of video pierced our ears. A British woman was not impressed though, and she immediately asked him to lower the volume.

After one bus transfer, an interesting boat ride out to the island, and a bumpy ride on the back of a pick-up truck, we finally arrived at Ao Phai, the small beach we had selected for our stay. As we came in on the pick-up, I started getting some serious Jurassic Park vibes. A small island in the tropics? Rugged roads traversed only by pick-up trucks? If you don't believe me, take a look at this picture. Pure JP:

While we were looking around for a good place to stay, an Australian man approached me and mysteriously asked, "Looking for a bungalow?" Who was this guy? Muldoon? (In Jurassic Park, Muldoon is the Australian bounty hunter hired by John Hammond to contain the dinasaurs if anything gets out of hand.) Something about this guy didn't seem right. I cautiously asked him who he was and why he wanted to know about my business. It turned out that he owned "a little place up the road called the Lost Resort." As I write this, I can tell that this story is not translating well, but I assure you that this man was incredibly creepy and gave us both weird vibes. We passed on the Lost Resort and settled on a supremely discounted if not somewhat haggard little bungalow about two minutes from the beach.

We spent the rest of the day swimming in and walking along the beautiful beach. Also, as I briefly mentioned in a previous post, we rented a motorbike and rode it around the island. This was very fun even though it took a bit of practice for me to get the hang of it. The next morning we hopped on the bike headed to the very southern tip of the island. There, we found a beach that was virtually uninhabited. Unfortunately, we almost immediately had to head back and catch the boat back to the mainland. Our time on Ko Samet had all to quickly come to an end. Here is a picture of me with the motorbike:

Overall, I have very positive feelings towards Bangkok. It is one of those cities that I've always wanted to visit and it was very surreal to actually be there. True to the stereotypes, the people are very friendly and the food is a delicious combination of sweet and spicy. The one stereotype I found to be untrue, however, was the claim that Bangkok is chaotic, overcrowded and overwhelming. Maybe its because I had just spent a month in China, but Bangkok was much cleaner and well-organized than I had anticipated. Sure, there was a decent amount of traffic and the pollution was a bit of a turnoff, but Bangkok is definitely a place I would be eager to return to. If anything else, it would give me a reason to get back to Ko Samet, or one of Thailand's other beach islands. I'll leave you with one last picture. I swear this wasn't photoshopped!

Some Pictures from China

This set of pictures is about a week overdue, but I finally put it together. These aren't necessarily my favorite pictures from China. Nor are they meant to fully summarize the time I spent there. Mostly they are just meant to document something silly, interesting or beautiful. Hope you enjoy!

A crazy lady singing. Shanghai.

Various magnets available for purchase. Everything from Yao Ming to Saddam Hussein! Shanghai.

Michael the tourist! Shanghai.

There are a lot of bicycles in China. Here are a few. Shanghai.

Art exhibit at 798. Beijing.

A milipede traversing the Great Wall of China. Long journey ahead! Outside of Beijing.

Mimi as Asian tourist. Pingyao.

Fresh roasted Macadamia nuts! Pingyao.

A dog and a cat. Pingyao.

My rooster on the way to the post office. Pingyao.

Small boy with even smaller puppy. Pingyao.

Mimi in Dazhai Village. Longji Rice Terraces.

Dazhai Village from above. Longji Rice Terraces.

Hiking trail from Dazhai to Ping'an. Longji Rice Terraces.

Fresh veggies at the market. Yangshuo.

Fresh chickens at the market. Yangshuo.

Outrageous desserts. Hong Kong.