Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lama groupies are like Jolie-Pitt groupies but with cheaper cameras.

What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?

-Ursula K. LeGuin 

Lama groupies are like Jolie-Pitt groupies but with cheaper cameras. 

I join the small crowd standing outside his house. We’re hoping for a glimpse as he enters, cameras poised, the spiritual-political paparazzi drooling for a snap to plaster on the cover of Dharma Stars Weekly. My account grows more pathetic, I admit to being excited, to having a heart rate mid horse race, to bouncing on the balls of my feet like a terrier would for dangling meat. The incisors are out, I’m laughing at our collective foolishness, at our synchronous intake of breath as his entourage approaches

There’s a white SUV and there he is, in the front passenger seat of the next vehicle, one of the planet’s few heroes outside the cineplex. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama is smiling, he never stops, he raises both hands to give an air of mock surprise that a parent might reserve for Mickey Mouse. We’re not the rodent, we’re the children the expression is intended to incite joy in, and it works. We giggle as the Dalai Lama enters his compound trailed by three more SUVs. A forty-five minute wait for a 4.5 second sighting and its high-fives all around, we did it, we almost made eye contact with Buddhism’s biggest celebrity.

It comes at a time when monk self-immolation is on the rise in Tibet, when His Holiness is making regular appearances on BBC, when the Chinese government continues to label him a terrorist for bringing unwanted attention to the communist-controlled autonomous zone, and when amateur footage continues leaking over the Indian border from Tibet documenting Chinese soldiers kicking cuffed monks in the ribs while striking their skulls with billy clubs and monks sitting themselves ablaze in protest as crowds surround to watch the bodies burn alive in silence. And still the Dalai Lama smiles. He’s either enlightened or deranged, although perhaps the two are duplicitous, are one and the same. Those that sit Indian-style with feet resting on the opposite knee while chanting for hours on end live in asylums in North America and monasteries in Dharamsala and life is more about geography than sanity.

The maroon-robed, they’re always beaming, every time I converse with monks, usually at a request to practice their English, big grins plaster their faces and yes, I’m fat, balding and old, the trifecta of inaffection, a silly sight to behold for sure, yet it always seems as though they’re laughing with me, not at me. An infectious joy, there’s always a stupid grin on my ugly mug too. Stupid, because I’m unsure as to what I’m smiling about and I need a reason for there will be no smiling without just cause, my fellow Americans. I know what you’ll call me and where you’ll confine me if I’m unable to proffer sufficient excuse and so, for the moment, this monastery-crammed geography appeals to my freedom of movement. Plus, if I ordain I’ll never have to wear pants again. It may not be enlightenment but the breeze down under, it’s close enough.

Keep drifting.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The only thing worse than being poor is not being poor.

“See, the poor dream all their lives of getting enough to eat and looking like the rich. And what do the rich dream of? Losing weight and looking like the poor.” 

-Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger

The only thing worse than being poor is not being poor.
India is no longer filled with hippies sitting for extended periods of time in the lotus position trying to get halfway past the wheel of existence (well, not as many), but morons on a poverty-tourism adventure holiday. I know because I am one.
I came here to see the slums, the street kids, the legless beggars, the leper beggars, the women-carrying-dirty-babies beggars, and the I-can-make-more-money-putting-on-a-sad-sorry-face-in-Caucasoid-dense-travel-zones-than-through-honest-labor beggars. Cows get free reign, they’re everywhere, they’re always blocking traffic oblivious to the crescendo of car horns or acting in spite of them, picking through garbage, the plastic, Styrofoam and glass turning their bowel movements liquid and bloody and this is why I came here. To see gangs of scraggly dogs attack each other, to see the open wounds on their skulls exposing pink brain matter, each filthy and a haven for parasites. Even Udaipur, ‘India’s most romantic city’, is filled with these things, it’s lake filled with waste and garbage, it’s only romantic at sunset from the 6th floor of a hotel restaurant when dusk hides ‘the India’ from Udaipur.
Poverty-tourists, we sure get our rupees worth, and you hear it time and again. The sentence to sum up our Indian travels, the reason we came. “It just makes you realize how lucky we are.” Oh yes, there it is, Karma favors the Caucasoid.
To maintain this ‘realization’ avoid the British-influenced sections of New Delhi and the Punjabi capital of Chandigarh designed by a Swiss-French architect. Gifts from the white man, these areas are civil, orderly and largely devoid of cows. Surprise, surprise, people have money in these places and Pizza Huts follow. India’s un-Indian zones, you’ll even see bellies extending over beltlines. Also, don’t look too hard at the people you’re comparing your good fortune to. At first glance you’ll get exactly what you want, you’ll feel disgusting, defiled by your own good health and all the money in your pockets. Just make sure not to stick around to see them smile, move on before you hear them laugh, and Shiva forbid you spot a child curled up with his father on the ground at a train station at three in the morning looking so serene, so peaceful, that you’ll wonder if you’ve ever felt that sort of sincere, pure warmth this child with nothing radiates. 
Maybe he’s a child with everything that matters. 
Maybe I hate him, scorn his simple mind, ridicule his silly religion with its 3,600,000 gods, and loathe the way his heart chakra forms a bubble of warmth around the pair. I hate how his mere existence shows me what I’m missing, not only is my palate numb to the taste of the transcendental, the mere mention of it induces rage and hostility. I come from a society of such sophistication that when we hear the words ‘I love you’ it’s nothing more than a cliché, where affection and feelings are so passé. This boy, like so many other Indians, has the gall to exist in contra to my society of sophistication; he is, unquestionably, stupid, poor and possesses a strong reverence for cows excreting bloody liquid waste and here I am, now in Dharamsala, thinking maybe he’s one of the lucky ones. 
Damn it. I shouldn’t have stuck around so long, my poverty-tourism adventure has are-the-Greeks-really-going-to-abandon-the-Euro? backfired. Guess it’s time to grow a beard, pierce my nipples and assume the lotus position. 
Keep drifting.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Have you ever heard shouts for an encore after urinating?

“May you have ten daughters and may they all marry well.”

-The ultimate Hindu curse, at marriage the bride’s family must present the groom’s with a dowry, the richer the groom’s family the more substantial the gifts expected. Ten daughters would make a welfare recipient out of Donald Trump.

Have you ever heard shouts for an encore after urinating?

The kids, the filthy beggar children that look like they were recently rescued after being trapped for several months in a coal mine, they always hone in on me. Indian tourism has nosedived in 2011 with the downfall of the Caucasoid economies, few white folk can be found unless you’re at ‘The Taj’ or a Rajasthan fort, and so it’s no surprise when they surround me at the train station. Again. When I sit down they sit down. They smile, they bat their big brown doe eyes and repeat a phrase that, to survive it, one must turn into a meditation mantra. “Please sir, ten rupees.” It’s on a sound loop. Again.

I stare back in zombified indifference. I prefer to reply with funny faces and abysmal movie impressions—“That’ll do donkey, that’ll do,” (Shrek) or “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men…” (Pulp Fiction)–but I’m zapped of energy. Again. Another head cold, the third in four weeks, with intestinal issues in between. Welcome to India.

My own behavior is to blame. I shake hands anytime they’re offered, hands that most often belong to those of the street, I’ve even been on the receiving end of a few undeserved hugs. And these people are so ragged, so wretchedly thin and grubby, the antithesis of Mr. Clean, that ten out of ten doctors, their spouses and their extramarital affairs would all advise against it. One night I even slept at the train station. I was awoken several times with looks of concern, with questions like, “What doing?” and “You okay?” I’m fine. I’m just doing what the locals do. I didn’t come here to live like an American although a single night with a backpack pillow and muck encrusted concrete floor for a bed hardly qualifies as ‘roughing it’ when you see how so many of these people live. I might seek out the biggest s**t-holes in terms of accommodation but I’m always surrounded by four walls and lying on some sort of cushioning that serves as a mattress.

Still, I get sick a lot. I’m weak. I can’t handle the country. I’m not Indian, even though I urinate like one.

There aren’t any public restrooms in India because the Indian regards the world as his toilet. Social custom allows one to whip it out to relieve oneself nearly anywhere in this otherwise sexually modest culture. Sides of buildings, shrubbery, sidewalks, vehicles— preferably parked—are all fair game. While making your way to a city palace you’ll have to skip over, or splash through, several yellow streams. Inevitably nature calls. While the Indian can seemingly relieve himself in private in the public arena my pale tint removes any sense of pissing decorum. To urinate with an audience is one of those bizarre traveling moments that an international relations degree has no equal for. With a doctor’s intervention right out of the womb even ‘down there’ we’re different and yes, Mr. Hajib, I really am from a binary star solar system on the outskirts of the Andromeda Galaxy.

It’s a dog eat dog country so I’m marking my territory throughout the Indian state of Rajasthan , having added new rivulets to Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Pushkar and now Udaipur. A Pushkar experience wells sums up the Indian male in relation to the Caucasoid traveler.

Indians are loud, pushy, and walk around as if they own the place. (They do.) A young Brahmin, or supposed priest, was insistent I take a small flower from him and place it into the holy lake, at which time he’d bless my family and I. This would be followed by a demand for a large ‘donation’. I didn’t accept his gift. The real priests don’t solicit on the street. When the same scam has been going on for decades every guidebook and, therefore, every traveler warns against giving in to such priestly generosity. This only makes the faux Brahmin more desperate. His hostility quickly escalates to absurd levels, I’m embarrassed by the public display. Yet I can’t help but antagonize.

I say that it’s going to take a lot more than a flower to get me to take my clothes off, I ask him to please stop looking at my butt, it’s making me uncomfortable. In male-dominated homophobic India this is enough make his mouth froth, to fill this rottweiler with rabies-like rage. At which point I escape into a shop selling women’s dresses. For my mother, I tell the shopkeeper, but dang it, I don’t know her size.

A few hours later, as I’m walking back to my guesthouse, I receive a slap on the back. It’s the Brahmin. He wants to have a cup of chai with me. Oddly enough, I do. We laugh about our encounter earlier in the afternoon, chatting for a couple hours he gives me a perspective on the country, a perspective on life, that’s incomprehensible to my rationally Western way of looking at things. When they’re not ‘working’ Indians are some of the friendliest people you’ll ever run into.

He leaves before me. I end up having to pay for his chai. Well, at least it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a ‘donation’ for blessings.

Keep drifting.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Please remain dead and keep your limbs inside the bonfire at all times.

“How do I regard you? I regard you as one of those men who would stand and smile at their torturer while he cut their entrails out.”

-Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

 Please remain dead and keep your limbs inside the bonfire at all times. 

“You travel alone?”


“Some advice. My country full of thieves. These men you talk to, they thieves. Never travel by self here.”

This isn’t the sort of thing you want to hear at a bus stop in The Middle of Nowhere, India at one in the morning. The previous night the threat was more overt.

“No donation and things get very bad for you here,” I was told over and over again at Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat by a druggie turned forced upon me tour guide explaining that if I didn’t donate for ‘wood’, supposedly for cremations for the poor, then maybe I’d end up cremated myself. Grabbing my arm, pulling, becoming increasingly hostile, then outright yelling; call me crazy but I’m not feeling all that charitable.

I was subject to the same scam earlier in the day at a different cremation ghat. Ten rupees--twenty cents—would likely be enough to satisfy these first-I-play-friendly-but-soon-turn-psycho extortionists. Still, I don’t give. Instead I smile, shrug, and slowly walk away. I consume 3,000 calories a day, the people threatening me less than half that. Do your worst. Nothing is more ridiculous, more foolish, than the ego of the big-bodied, but in India when your shrug is followed by a shove it’s often enough to shake the fleas off. It sure beats victimization. Even if it is only twenty cents.

Unless you’re on a packaged tour or holing yourself up in an ashram or yoga retreat India will prove a trying country to exist in. The rickshaw drivers, trinket sellers (barbers, shoe repairers, ad naseam) and beggars supply unceasing harassment. In Agra a rickshaw driver followed me the entire five kilometer walk from a railway station to the Taj Mahal, pestering for a fare right up until I walked into a guesthouse. A near hour of increasingly whiny solicitation. I laughed. It’s all I can do. Let these people get to you and you’d best not visit the country. Many travelers I met in Nepal imported India horror stories, always concluding with, “We didn’t even last a week.” How long were you planning? “Thirty days.” A subconscious self-loathing—yes, Dr. Freud, it likely relates to a repressed Oedipus complex—has swindled me into planning on sixty.

Despite the difficulty India makes for fantastic travel. The religious ceremonies are am-I-still-on-planet-Earth? bizarre, every day I’m eating food I’ve never even heard of, let alone put anywhere near my mouth (my intestines are threatening to strike), and the faces—whether they’re filthy street children or the Varanasi elderly withering away by the cremation ghats to die—are infinitely fascinating. The sights, like Agra Fort, the Taj Mahal and Meherangarh Fort, are even larger and more splendid than the best photographers have been able to depict, in Agra you have the choice of being pulled in a cart by horse or camel, in Allahabad a bull might charge at you as it makes its way down the street (the roads, even in dense urban areas, are filled with cows and cow patties, not to mention plenty of human feces), and have you ever seen a charred human leg roll out of a bonfire as children chant around it?

How about some nonsensical oxymorons? India is richly impoverished, it’s lovingly hated, it’s frustratingly beautiful. Of course, the first few days it only frustrates.

No, I’m not going to give you a donation for opium wood. Yes, I agree, this will subject me to bad karma. Why should I care? I’ve found the Hindu loophole, to bathe in the Ganges is to be absolved of sin, sweep my ashes into the river in Varanasi (also known as Benares, the City of Light founded by none other than Shiva, the world’s holiest Hindu site) and I attain instant moksha or enlightenment. Curse me, grab, pull, yell, please keep your spittle below my neck, violence will only be returned in kind for I’m an American, an imperial power of the Caucasoid variety and I’ve come to civilize you as my British counterparts did until 1947. Guns, grenades, Abrams tanks, I’ll spare no expense, something you have so little of.

That, or I just want to look at a temple, a fort, and I’ll be on my way. Worry and fret over the former as I carry out the latter. One has to talk a big game in the Land of Thieves and no, not a single one goes by the name of Aladdin.

Keep drifting.

[No Taj pics, Indian internet works as well as its social security/welfare systems, a lame joke that's terribly inappropriate and not the least bit funny when you're here.]

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Mowgli population control plan.

"You know, just going to do a bit of the Mowgli thing for a day or two, then head down to India for a month and play in some forts. It'll be brilliant."

-A Londoner explaining her travel plans; after a six hour bus ride and seventy-two more 'brilliants' I couldn't help but become infatuated.

The Mowgli population control plan.

If given the option, consider remaining content observing rather than sitting on top of an elephant as it saunters through the jungle. At a distance you don't realize the animal is being guided by its trainer with metal pole whacks to the skull, you're not close enough to hear and breathe in the beast's flagellations followed by a solid minute of falling feces, and your testicles won't be compressed into the seat's wooden post each time the elephant takes one of its long, awkward steps. It isn't so much an adventure straight out of the Jungle Book as it is a castration.

This blog, it's now being written in a much higher, squeakier pitch. Think Pee-Wee Herman after a date with a helium balloon.

Nepal's Chitwan National Park can only be entered with not one but at least two guides. "In case animal get one other can get tourist back," I'm told. Rhino charges are common, tiger sightings rare, but it's the sloth bear that brings the most fear. Guides are eager to show their scars, some don't need to life a pant leg, they simply point to their faces. Before entering I had to leave a telephone contact number so "we explain to family if bad happen." I've never seen such care taken since I've been in the country.

In the canoe, on the way into the park, a crocodile is spotted. It's also the same time I notice a strong smell of alcohol coming from the English-speaking guide. A half hour into our day long walk he vomits. He doesn't stop until unleashing over a half gallon of liquid in several short bursts spaced a couple minutes apart by gagging bouts. Then it's time for a nap. It's the first of many.

Between naps we walk little and stop a lot. We listen. We bend down, grab dirt, sniff it, sift it through our fingers, then sniff again. His English starts mumbled and ends gargled. I optimistically interpret that we're on the trail of the One-Horned Indian Rhinoceros. More naps, more dirt sniffing, eight hours later we're still on its trail. At least, that's what I'm probably being told.

As we find our way back to the entrance I recount having seen a tiger footprint, lots of large, frightening insects, the ass of a deer in flight, and a couple of monkeys. No rhino. Wait, there's a lot of Nepali gibberish being exchanged between my guides and the soldier with a machine gun guarding the entrance. We run downstream a half kilometer to join a few other Caucasoids with guide entourages. A rhinoceros is bathing in the river, it's blowing bubbles out of both ends. After twenty minutes it clambers out of the water. I'm amazed at my severe underestimation of the animal's size, it's prehistoric, more armor than a Panzer Tank, its ears wiggle stupidly. When you're that powerful there's no need to ever outsmart anything.

Upon returning to the guesthouse the manager inquires about my guide's services. "You see rhino, yeah? My brother good guide, eh?"

"Yes," I agree. "Incredible."

Keep drifting.

My main man Mowgli.

rhino butt

tiger track

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It’s not so much altitude sickness as a breathless I-haven’t-been-able-to-feel-my-face-for-so-long-that-I’m-unsure-if-I-still-have-one delirium.

“I said, “Let there be light,” and so there was. And I said, “Let there be earth,” and so it is under your feet. And I said, “Let glorious mountains rise from the Earth’s crust,” and so here they are before you. You’re welcome.”

-My short speech to recent Finnish and Hollander acquaintances upon reaching the day’s destination, we were surrounded by Himalayan peaks. The sarcasm/humor was lost in translation or delivery, silence and askance looks pervaded. They avoided me the rest of the day. Perhaps it was due to my ‘mountain musk’ acquired after a week without bathing. Either way, their loss (I said to myself while crying in the comfort of my sleeping bag).

It’s not so much altitude sickness as a breathless I-haven’t-been-able-to-feel-my-face-for-so-long-that-I’m-unsure-if-I-still-have-one delirium. 

Sorry Mom. You still can’t collect on that travel life insurance policy. Of course, the policy doesn’t cover mountaineering accidents which, undoubtedly, the company would try group Himalaya hiking into and you’d end up settling out of court for a mere $35,000 instead of the $100,000 owed to spare an eighteen month legal battle—an emotional black hole—and such a sum is hardly worth a son. Even the unkempt derelict one of the three who’s current life motto is ‘Why shower, shave, or tweeze my nostril hair when the grime and defiant follicles will be back tomorrow anyway?’

I spent the last 25 days walking. A lot. Up or down, never straight. In tennis shoes that had been super-glued back together twice before beginning and three times during. With a backpack that’s zippers have given way to a tape-and-shoelace system to tighten and close. Filled with second-hand cold weather gear picked up in Nepal using the stratagem: ‘The more filth and tears the better the buyer’s bargaining position.’ About ten days in, at 17,800 feet, my pack was empty. I was wearing its contents. The sleeping bag was used as a scarf.*

I wish I could say the view was amazing, that the mountains mesmerized, that I played witness to angels dancing atop some of the world’s tallest peaks. All I saw was white. Clouds and snow, but for a sign telling me I reached my target I could have been anywhere—a white-walled room of an asylum or in a flurry of copy paper after an accident at Office Depot. Until then the scenery was incredible, afterwards the same. Nepal’s natural diversity is stunning; days were spent in lush valleys, rain forests, cloud forests, pine forests, barren high-altitude terrain, and even (very) high desert.

Ten days later, twenty days in, the clouds parted. I was surrounded by peaks, some elevated above sea-level by over 26,000 feet. A 360 degree panorama of jagged white pinnacles—who knew snow could be so violent? With the sun’s rise the mountains glow, grow gilded. It’s the moment the cacophony of the universe harmonizes in my chest cavity.

I would have kept walking but after 200-plus miles I ran out of trail. If I make it back before Christmas new shoes are first on the wish list.

Keep drifting.

*This is backpacker bragging, the I-roughed-it-more-than-thou boast, something I have no tolerance for receiving but am always eager to dispense. That’s me, always giving, a Saint Nicholas of the modern age.

A few days were spent hiking with other travelers, I prefer the company of the locals--they make me laugh more.

It took 25 days but I finally deduced why my feet were so cold.

My yak stare down; one glance and the 700-pound beasts parted to allow me passage.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

I’m not spitting on the dead, I’m spitting out the dead.

“Someone got mugged walking to the World Peace Pagoda today?” It’s about a ninety minute hike uphill from Pokahara’s Lakeside tourist area in Nepal.

“Yeah,” the guesthouse clerk says, “Very bad.”

“How ironic.” It was constructed by Buddhist monks to promote world peace and people get robbed on the way up. I say, “That, that right there, is funny, I don’t care who you are."

“Not funny, very bad.”

“Yeah, but-”

He interrupts, “No, very bad.”



“Oh. Okay.”

I’m not spitting on the dead, I’m spitting out the dead.

What Katmandu lacks in air quality it more than makes for in UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Within a twenty kilometer radius seven monuments (together actually counted as a single Heritage Site--the first sentence was purposefully misleading to speed up your heart rate by two beats per minute, it’s the only pseudo-exercise you’ll be getting today, you workaholic) have been deemed UNESCO-funding suitable for upkeep and restoration, so why not spend a day at each? That the Indian Visa process takes a week is without coincidence, the moon is aligned with Jupiter and one of the larger asteroids in the outer ring, the divine in the form of the Buddha, Vishnu, or _______ (insert your favorite deity in the space provided) is requesting a visit to all. Just like a ‘DONATIONS ACCEPTED’ sign at a wat or temple, it’s more of a demand. Alternatively the day could be spent counting how many bugs have been entombed in the walls of your guesthouse room with the slap of hand (1,437), but you just bought a new memory card for the digital camera so what the hell or flea-in-a-dog’s-rectum rebirth?

Swayambhunath, a Buddhist hilltop Stupa overlooking the Katmandu Valley, is reached after a 300-plus concrete stair ascent fending off battalions of monkeys from claiming everything on your person as their own. Reaching the top, bent over and heaving, you’ll be eye-level with the Great Dorje, a brass-plated celestial thunderbolt. The symbol of the power of enlightenment, it destroys ignorance, just not yours. Sorry, but you’re going to have to accrue a half million dollars in student loans like the rest of us. When you finally catch your breath, or awake after passing out, please remember to circle the stupa in a clockwise direction. I don’t want to be responsible for the bad luck you accrue for going the other way. And all this time you thought you hadn’t yet won the Powerball due to something as trivial as probability.

Bodnath is similar in structure, but built on a grander scale. Despite being bereft of a naturally elevated platform like Swayambhunath, it’s one of the largest and most significant Buddhist monuments in the world. Known as Boudha, Lord of Wisdom, the stupa is said to be protective, purifying and wish granting, so be sure to spin each of the hundreds of prayer wheels as you walk three and a half turns around the stupa chanting your most beloved Buddhist mantra in order to make proper merit. Your forearms, they’re in need of toning anyway. You’ll never look like a rock star without veins protruding from wrists to elbows and that Steven Tyler Halloween costume will be an everyone-thinks-I-dressed-up-as-a-drag-queen disappointment.

If you’ve been longing to see strangers cremated, their ashes swept into a river, and children bathing in said river less than 100 meters downstream, then Pashupatinath is the place for you. Reported to be the second most sacred Hindu site on Earth after Benares, the holy Bagmati river is responsible for carrying the dead onto the next life. A messy reincarnation, aside from human ashes the river carries plastic bags and bottles, candy wrappers, latex condoms and vegetable curries post human digestion.

Less accommodating than their Buddhist counterparts, Caucasoids aren’t allowed into any of the surrounding temples. Even after putting one of those red dots on my forehead. So I spent the day observing funeral rites, breathing in the ashes and smoke of the dead, then spent the evening sneezing murky gray mucus, my body rejecting the deceased. It’s okay, they’re at a point in the life cycle where the rebuff is unlikely to cause offense.

Lame levity aside, the cremation ceremonies are incredibly business-like, each lasting several hours as families, and sometimes a sole individual, murmur prayer and mourn the life lost. Watching their loved one turn to charcoaled dust. Tourists taking pictures is the height of indecency.

Lame levity engaged, the cool thing about visiting a country whose Maoist government is classified as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’ organization by the U.S. government: bragging rights. The good thing about living in a country where it’s illegal to kill a cow: your mother will never burn an exquisite cut of tenderloin. The advantage of living amongst people with an average gross income of around $500 per capita annually (over 80% live on less than $2/day): a $1 tip after dinner brings enthusiastic handshakes from the wait staff. Yes sir, you’re looking at Mr. Washington. He loves you too.

The Blog page title and my current locale are at odds, I’ve drifted out of Southeast Asia, it’s time to put this muddled travelogue to rest. With a three to five week (depending on enthusiasm and endurance) Himalaya hike on tap I don’t anticipate online activity in the immediate future. If I don’t post an I’m-not dead-yet-Mom entry within forty days it’s not that I fell victim to avalanche, demonic yaks or yeti, but rather became a member of the upstanding Sherpa community. You’re always welcome to reach me at 17,000 feet. Bring a Snickers bar.

Keep drifting.

At Patan's (5 km south of Katmandu) Durbar Square.

West meets East.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

From Bangkok’s bawdy neon to the rolling blackouts of Katmandu.

(on passing by a ‘working girl’ in Bangkok)
“A new girl I’ve never seen before tells me she loves me. Sincerity is the first casualty of capitalism.”

(discussing prayer flags)
“Blue for sky, white for air, red for fire, green for water, yellow for earth, generally in that order… The flags which carry the texts of a thousand prayers stitched into the cloth are intrinsic to Tibetan Buddhism, and you find them all over the Himalayas. The wind takes their healing meditations of the holy monks and carries them all over our tortured world; to use the wind and earth as a kind of machine to broadcast the way of transcendence is to me one of those sublime cultural achievements: would you forgive me for suggesting it beats landing on the moon?”

-quotes from The Godfather of Katmandu, by John Burdett

From Bangkok’s bawdy neon to the rolling blackouts of Katmandu.

After enjoying the modernity of Thailand’s eleven million strong metropolis Nepal’s largest city is a bit of a shock. For a national capital there’s not much in the way of infrastructure. With over one million people one might expect a stoplight or two. How about a stop sign? With few sidewalks, narrow streets in disrepair, kamikaze motorcyclists and car horns constantly blaring as black exhaust spews from their undercarriages Bangkok’s zany upbeat energy is quickly forgotten to a let’s-try-not-to-get-maimed mental zapping. The street vendors, hawkers and beggars make what was once regarded as the fabled and inaccessible Shangri-La an exhausting exhaust-filled damn-it-another-Suzuki-side-mirror-just-hit-my-shoulder Third World hovel. A quote from the Lonely Planet guidebook: “Katmandu is regularly paralyzed by political ferment, electricity cuts and traffic seizures on a scale that is almost apocalyptic… Electricity is currently rationed across the city… [and] is unavailable for up to sixteen hours a day.”

Have you ever been approached by a ragged woman holding a baby pleading that her child needs milk? She doesn’t want money, just milk for an infant for Buddha’s or Vishnu’s or Shiva’s sake. You follow her to a storefront selling formula to discover the merchant wants 1,200 Nepali rupees for a box of the good stuff, over seventeen dollars. Something isn’t right here. Okay, 400 rupees the merchant says. Which is when you know it’s a scam, that him and the lady are in cahoots, they may even be married. She’s not doing the negotiating or trying to get a fair price. She wants you to pay as much as possible for formula that, once bought, will likely be put back on the shelf for the next my-money-is-my-burden Caucasoid.

So you walk away. Right into a young man walking on his hands. He’s two feet off the ground, his legs end above where his knees should be, he’s shaking a tin begging cup. He’s grunting like a Yeti. Minutes later a man with frost-bit black limbs moans and grabs at your ankles as you stumble past. Sorry, compassion left the body even before landing in Nepal, I’ve already seen it, I’ve already spent days feeling bad for being white and, at least comparatively, well off. Now I deal with the decrepitly deprived with a quote from the film True Grit, “I can’t do nothing for you, son.” And really, I can’t. I can pay for a meal but they’ll need another, and do I really want to help sustain a cycle of begging? I realize there may be no other options. At the same time, the constant hassle can ruin a day, a locale, maybe I won’t stay as long as I would have otherwise, maybe I’ll be reluctant to ever come back. Now legitimate business suffers. Of course, I don’t have a solution. Of course, I feel terrible when I get back to my the-water-is-the-same-shade-as-rusty-metal accommodation to wash the beggars’ hepatitis-A grime away.

It’s been a long day. It’s nearly 8 a.m.

Only a few days removed and I’m longing for Bangkok’s serendipitous just-start-walking-around-and-see-what-happens fun. I’d get off the Sky-Train and saunter into Asian boy band concerts, dance contests, ritual dance performances, magic shows, fortune-telling gypsies and gratis meditation seminars (donations accepted). The people watching is unparalleled. From the Khao San street Caucasoid hippies to the pot-bellied farangs in their fifties arm in arm with beautiful twenty year-old tiny Thai girls (or, even more disturbing, boys) to the monks to the hundreds of school kids shouting ‘hello’ at you in an art museum to the is-he-pointing-his-machine-gun-at-me? Thai royal guards, Bangkok, like Saigon, is a fascinating city to set foot in. Anytime an escape from the metro-mayhem is required just wander down a soi (side street) and the pollution and traffic instantly give way to mom-and-pop restaurants and old Thais sipping tea over a chessboard. Relax, have a bowl of noodles and recalibrate before carrying on.

From man-made steel and concrete mountains to the Himalayas, humanoids have no answer, nor will ever have an answer, to the awesome power of the natural world. Nepal hosts eight of Earth’s ten highest peaks, it’s the ‘playground of the gods’. I’ve only seen them from the sky during the flight and as eager as I am to begin a twenty day lose-a-pinkie-toe-to-frost-bite trek I have to dawdle around Katmandu for a while in the hope of obtaining an Indian visa. Notorious for their paperwork, the process takes over a week, during the initial application I ran into an Irish couple who only lasted ten days in the country of cow-worshippers. They repeated the phrase ‘one point two billion’ a lot. As in people. As you can guess, they told me, it’s crowded. It’s filthy. Katmandu is like Shangri-La.

Funny, these ‘spiritual places’ seem like the last places you’d go for uninterrupted contemplation. Perhaps their impoverished disorder teaches one to find serenity in a s**t storm. The problem: I’m not sure if I want to find out anymore. My throat is already CO2-itchy, I might need my lungs for something later on in life. Like, you know, breathing and stuff. I won’t disgust you with tales of ‘the trots’, but when visiting Nepal one is advised when showering not to get the water in one’s mouth. The guidebook points out that even people who’ve traveled throughout Asia tend to come down with severe diarrhea in the country.

Well, that’s life. It’s not always the Shangri-La we were expecting.

Keep drifting.

Welcome to Katmandu, the world's coolest sounding capital.

View from my Katmandu guest house room.

Katmandu's famous Swayambunath Buddhist temple and stupa. 

Walking up to the Swayambunath stupa.

Bangkok's Siam Paragon Mall at night, with concert outside.

Thailand's Ministry of Defense

At Bangkok's Wat Pho, home to the world's largest reclining Buddha.

Wat Pho

Add caption

Monitor lizard, about two feet long, swimming in a Bangkok pond.

At Bangkok's Lumphini Park.