I just got done talking with my friend Chris and he pointed out some very interesting things and made some very astute points. And he speculated as to their causes, which really got me thinking.
He’s been following the posts since I left and has seen them transform as my trip has progressed. Basically, it’s that my posts have gone from me being really amazed about the stuff I’ve been going to and seeing and me having experiences with locals and what not, to me talking about the people I’ve been traveling with more, to me just kind of talking in an isolated and sarcastic manner about everything I see, with some experiences thrown in, which I think is entirely right. So I’ll talk a little bit about why.
First, I would divide this trip into five segments, so far:
#1: South America:
The beginning of my trip and a completely new experience for me in every sense of the word new. It was my first time in third world countries, my first time on my own, my first time in a place where they didn’t speak English and I even stayed with a rich family which allowed me to see the destitute poverty and the converse wealth in very real senses. I also speak a bit of Spanish which allowed me to get incredibly closer to everything. It was great. That newness certainly showed itself in my travelogues. In addition, I wasn’t a professional traveler yet. I hadn’t gotten sick of cheesy traveler chat (actually, I loved it) and I felt a genuine connection with my fellow backpackers. As you have noticed, that certainly has changed. I also wasn’t sick of going to see museums and stuff like that yet, as well.
#2: New Zealand and Australia:
This travel was very interesting. They are developed countries, so I didn’t feel that things in my culture were any better than things in theirs (with regard to little things like washing your hands before you prepare people’s food or after using the toilet, we are all on the same page). Also, I did most of this travel on my own. I did travel in NZ with people, but for the next half, I discovered that I loved trekking and I spent a lot of time in isolation. I focused my logs more on the stuff I did alone, although I did still mention a lot of people in my logs. In Australia, I had my own car, and that was a complete adventure and I loved it. I went where I wanted and I did it mostly alone and I loved every second of it. I also tried to see (in the limited time I had), that which really embodied Australia in my opinion: the outback. I started getting sick of the dumb backpackers that just go to the beaches, hook up with chicks and guys and waste their money on beer, seeing none of the actual culture. These guys and girls were in New Zealand too, and I actually started to feel a bit of hostility towards them. I realized that there are two main types of backpackers: those to travel for a break and those who travel to learn. I obviously think I’m the latter, and I soon started trying to avoid contact with the former. The people who were different were the ones that were mentioned in my posts unless it was me putting them in to point out how I was different. Fair enough, no? That was the beginning of my getting jaded. It was also verging on nearly a year of me having traveled. I was also seeing a lot of stuff and many things were starting to lose their novelty. I was starting to see things how they really are and not how my excitement for doing something different was distorting it. It’s not as fun, but more realistic.
I started seeing things that both disgusted me and made me shake my head in amazement. In poor countries, lots of people are ignorant and it is because they are in a poor country. Many don’t have access to quality education like we do in developed countries (at the same time though, anyone who has watched the bit where Jay Leno asks normal people simple questions knows that rich people can be ignorant too. But that is beside the point.) They have a different culture too, and some of the habits you can’t help but see as backwards. For example, in China, people spit everywhere. Lots don’t see it as anything bad, but we used to spit too in the West. We stopped the practice because it is unsanitary. Do I think it’s disgusting? Yes. Yet I had to live with it for 6 months. And how does one cope with that? Well, me? I get sarcastic. I make use of satire at others’ expense. When you see people doing things that you think are dumb over and over and over and realize that it’s not your place to say anything (that is to say, if it truly is detrimental to their society, this habit will change on its own as the country develops) you just kind of band up with other people and create a cohesion amongst each other while you talk about how stupid these things are with the group. I tell you, to this day, one of the most shocking things I’ve seen and see over and over again is someone getting done with some trash and then just tossing it out into the street. It makes me soooo mad, but who am I to say anything? It’s not my country. I don’t have to live in the filth as I can just go home if I want. I’ve seen some pretty shocking things, but for some reason, something as simple as that gets me every time.
My time in China was also with a purpose. I wanted to learn Chinese and about Chinese culture and I wanted to improve my speaking ability and how I work with large groups. I talked a lot about myself and how I felt I was achieving those goals. This was a very self centered time, but then again, a travelogue is about both me and my experience and, as such, it is actually quite impossible that it wouldn’t be self centered. It was also a condescending time. Do I think we do some things a lot better in the West than they do in the East? Ha! You can bet your life. That was reinforced every time I had to squat over a toilet and then go hunting for the one sink (without soap) in the building, perhaps two floors up. My posts reflected this feeling. Perhaps it was self righteous, but it’s how I felt and still feel. I didn’t meet so many vacationing backpackers during this time, so you were unlikely to pick up on any animosity towards them. Since this time was purposely more about me though, I didn’t mention all that many people in detail either, although I did room with a Chinese guy (Brad, you’re the best!) and learned a tremendous amount about the culture through my students. This was a very unique experience and I’m glad my logs reflect that.
#4: Southeast Asia:
This place is trendy and has incredible tourist infrastructure present (with the exception of maybe Laos) and it’s not really all that strange. There are some really different things there, but it’s not all that crazy like I imagined. There is no isolation, either, and so you don’t really learn all that much about yourself unless you really try. I managed to escape the tourist trail in Malaysia and Laos and get in touch with some backpackers that I really liked and had a great time in isolation at the same time, but for the most part, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand are filled with a bunch of kids who think they are conquistadores because they bought a plane ticket to Thailand and got drunk out on the beach for two weeks. Do I think I am on a different level as a traveler than these guys? Yes. Does my travelogue reflect that? There is no denying it. It was hard to focus on the details of the places I visited though because these people were everywhere I went, and to be honest, a lot of the “must see” sites were a bit disappointing, in part because they had been built up by these very people and also because I had seen quite a bit already and it was getting hard to impress me with a temple I had seen a hundred times before. This was a very difficult time for me because a lot of the stuff was really disappointing and I wasn’t enjoying the company, but the places I did like were surely talked about enough in this travelogue.
Although I talked about how cool I was and how uncool the people I was meeting weren’t, believe it or not, I’ve gotten a lot more humble as I’ve continue traveling. When people ask me how long I’ve been traveling, I usually just say how long I’ve been in that region, not on the whole trip (which, if they do keep on me about it and I tell them, blows their minds) and I make it a point to never tell people what they HAVE to do, I just casually recommend some places if they ask. Although I talk about the fact that I speak Spanish on this travelogue a lot (damnit, there I go again!), I don’t flaunt it on my trip. People travel with me for weeks sometimes and only realize I speak it when I strike up a conversation with someone from Mexico who I happen to meet. I don’t think I’m better than all the other travelers I meet, either. With the exception of that jackass insurance fraud Canadian (who I didn’t lecture, I just casually questioned whether what he was doing was moral or not), the people I mention in my posts are genuinely special people and I’m sure that there was never even a bit of condescension toward these people in any of my posts.
However, my experiences in Laos, how much I enjoyed the Mekong River Delta in Vietnam although I didn’t like the rest of the country so much, Angkor Wat, Taman Negara (the subject of probably one of my best posts so far), and the Cameron Highlands were all among places I really enjoyed and you can bet that the people mentioned in these logs were indeed very special people as they actually caused me to take note of them (I really want to remember these people). Since I was seeing the same old stuff over and over and because it was remarkably hard to get a feel for the culture because there had been such a barrier put up between “Tourist” and “Local” life, I didn’t get all that much out of this section in my trip in a personal sense, except for the special experiences with locals in Cambodia and Vietnam I had. I did at least make lots of friends and got lots of cool pictures, but I don’t regret it at all. It is a part of my trip, just like the others, and I would repeat it again. I was also missing my Beijing life a bit and after a year and a half of being away, it made me start missing home. I thought about home more than any other portion of my trip and it was difficult.
#5: Nepal and India:
A bit worn from my SE Asia experience, I started on Nepal, where I had an incredible time. I met lots of cool people, I challenged myself physically, (need I remind you how I beat everyone on the trek! Wooooo!!!! Seeing as how when I started this trip, I was the last one to camp every day on the Machu Pichu hike and was constantly embarrassed my physical state, I think that was quite an accomplishment), and saw some of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. I saw a lot of the culture first hand (a lot of the experiences I had didn’t make it into the posts) and I enjoyed my time considerably. I also got really sick. After recovering, I headed to India at the last moment and was assaulted by “Extreme.” I tried to convey the extreme I experienced in my post, but it didn’t work because it’s impossible. There is no way you can ever understand that kind of extreme until you have seen it first hand. India is unlike anything you have ever seen in your life and I was handling it quite well until I got sick again and felt like I wanted to die. And India showed no mercy, it smashed me to the ground. The heat was merciless and I was really unprepared for it and I just had to escape. If I had stayed, it would have eaten me alive. I would have kept getting sick and it would have just kept getting hotter and I wouldn’t have been able to continue. I saw things that blew my mind, though. My one post from there was not what it could have been, but then again, neither was the time I spent there, I got so little from it.
And so, I want to clear up some things about the nature of these posts. First, they are remarkably incomplete. There are millions of details that they say nothing about and that you, the reader, miss out on entirely. Second, although I enjoy the little bit of fame I get from these posts (awww, shuuuckks), they are primarily for me. They serve to document a rough outline of what I’ve done so I can go back and reread them and remember places, things and experiences. Every post is a flashback to a novel of experience and sadly, you guys won’t ever know about it unless you buy a ticket and go there. Although I keep a personal diary, I write in it once every few weeks or months about anything I feel and I keep it in Spanish. It’s more just Spanish homework than anything. What I put online is pretty much it. I hate keeping journals because it is so frustrating and time consuming to have to write so many things (it’s an incredibly overwhelming experience every time I try to even do a post for this travelogue).
Third, although the way I am surely shines through in this travelogue, I do keep quite a bit private. It’s important that you keep a bit for yourself and it makes that bit all the more special. Because I am that way, even in my life, I am sure that my parents (who read this travelogue religiously) have learned quite a bit about their son that they didn’t know before. But at the same time, it’s important that people don’t think that the one hour a week (and I don’t reread this stuff before I post it, so it’s bound to have lots of mistakes) I sit down to write a bit about what I’ve been doing is a complete reflection of me. It’s really not. Again, you guys don’t get the whole story, and I don’t really even want you to 🙂 But for those who do read this travelogue, it’s important to keep in mind that travel is about both you and the place. You can’t separate the two and any experience I have, because I’m me, would be completely different for you, because you are you. Experience and personality change perception.
Wow, those are some things that I’ve been wanting to put into words for a long time. I’m glad I finally got the time to sit down and type it all! What’s the future of my trip? Well, I’m back in China as I write this. I’ll be in Hong Kong for a few days and then I will go to the mainland, a place from where I’m sure you will see the nature of my logs change yet again. I imagine that they will get more thoughtful, seeing as I have a bit of insight into the culture, and seeing as there isn’t much that can shock me now, will be less extreme. I’m going to some supposedly beautiful places and we’ll see if they measure up to what I’ve been told. But, if anything, this next month is going to give me a chance to confirm my experience obtained when I lived in Beijing. How is the rest of China different? I don’t know. But I’m sure that I’m going to find out.
The heat is brutal. The strength of a thousand thousand suns pounds on your shoulders with the strength of an insane and angry gorilla. At the same time, it’s somehow also able to sap all your strength and suck your will to live out with the very same rays of light. But that’s only one of your concerns. A million things are going on around you and your mind plays a precarious game of multi-tasking times a thousand as it tries to process it all with the limited resources biologically allocated to it.
Traffic zips by: all sorts of vehicles- strange vehicles- barrel down the road with ferocious fervor. The streets are chock full of bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, cars, SUV’s, police cars, vans, camels and horses with carts (really), people pushing carts, trucks, tractors, buses and just about any other design that wheels can accommodate, and they all want one thing: For you to GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY! They bump you, tap you, honk obnoxiously (my God, please stop the honking. PLEASE!) stare at you and squeeze past at every opportunity. Pigs run wild in the street, dining on the human and animal excrement left from the previous day and cows stand defiantly in the middle of the road blocking traffic and not caring.
People flow around like the water in a river. The chaos continues to gush. Indian music plays excitedly in the background giving the scene a surreal and movie- like feel.
Piles of trash lay strewn across the road, down the narrow alleyways and the mobs of people skillfully walk around it. Puddles of death colored liquid dot the landscape filling every conceivable dip in the shoddy and crack laden road. A man rides by with a covered dead body on a cart and the corpse’s outstretched hand smacks your stomach as it passes and a woman trots by with a goat on a leash. Old orange robed and grey nappy haired holy men with paint on their foreheads hold their hands out for alms and a deformed man unable to walk chases after a middle age Western woman on a cart frantically, pushing it with his hands, as he begs for change.
Children walk by with buckets of water carrying it to God knows where and little girls skip by giggling gleefully with ice cream bought for them by their mother (who is wearing a neon green and yellow sari and happens to have a huge box balanced on the top of her head as she walks calmly after them). A man pisses on the wall behind a man selling bushels of plump and glistening grapes which he casually slaps water on to keep them wet. A man defacates in a ditch off the side of the road and uses his left hand (keep this in mind, it’s always the left hand) to splash water on his ass from his bottle of water before pulling up his pants and continuing about his day. Colors are everywhere: from the huge piles of bright paint powder being sold on the street corner to the vibrantly colored fruit and vegetables for sale on mats at the sidewalk to the incredible colors of the clothing people wear as they do what they do. It’s almost unbelievable and you can’t stop snapping photos.
But the people won’t leave you alone. Everywhere you go, someone latches onto you with an offer you can’t (not) refuse.
“Hi! What’s your name where are you from you want hash (good stuff, soooo good) you want silk i have shop good price! you need tour of city i have rickshaw where you go friend?????????”
You can’t walk two minutes without having to bat someone off and they are insanely persistent.
The city spreads out before you and old brown, tattered, dilapidated buildings (despite the chaos before them) tower like old snarled trees staring disinterestedly down at the madness. The pungent smells of curry, fried potatoes, spices, smoke, incense, urine, feces, barbeque, and marijuana fill the enclosed roadway and create a euphoric haze over the roadway blown down the street by the scorching winds thereby allowing it to pervade every possible crevice of every possible area everywhere.
And the heat continues to sear. But as you begin to give in, it stops pounding and starts to melt you. Your mind is melting, brother! Your energy is being sucked from you and you will soon die the death of a thousand cuts if you don’t get to shelter soon. Get out quick! You duck down an alley way and stumble into a restaurant and sit directly in front of the fan. The sweat evaporates off your body and cools you and you sink into your seat as you swig down and ice cold Coca-Cola.
You prepare yourself mentally, for the battle is waiting for you outside the doors you just walked in. Your service is only up when you get back to your hotel room…and it’s a long ways away.
Hmmm…so that’s India for me. It may be a bit different for some other people, but it can’t be by that much. Wait, I take that back. It’s not ALL of India, but it is certainly in Varanasi, the holiest city in India, where people take daily baths in a river with literally 10,000 times the healthy fecal limit and into which they also happen to toss dead bodies and pump raw sewage. But it’s holy, you know. So that cleans it. And here we are wasting all this money on stuff like sewage treatment!
Call me a culturally insensitive bastard, but this place is dirty. And it’s hot. And for the past 5 days I’ve had stomach problems of epic proportions (I’ll spare you the details) which has sapped me of my normal zeal and made me a cynical and grumpy jerk. I was running on barely enough energy to begin with, seeing as I could barely walk from dehydration, and as I’m sure you can imagine, the scene described above isn’t conducive to a healthy recovery. I went to bed each day literally exhausted to the point that I couldn’t even get up to shut off the light before passing out on my bed and despite the fan spinning dangerously unbalanced above me and threatening to come crashing down on me, I woke up each morning drenched in sweat from the heat.
Hey, but at least it’s not humid!
So let’s back up a bit and I’ll fill you in on what I’ve been up to. I really wanted to see India and despite the fact that I’ve had a really hard time here, I would do what I did again in a heartbeat. So I left Kathmandu and arrived in India. This is no small endeavor considering the security procedures the Indians put you through whenever you need to fly somewhere. They X-ray your bags at least twice (sometimes more) and then proceed to hand search all your bags (yes, the ones they just X-rayed) once when you enter the lobby and then again before you board the plane. You also walk through a metal detector and even if it doesn’t go off, a man then passes a small metal detector over every part of your body. This will happen again in front of the plane as they have installed another metal detector there. In addition to this, you also have to identify your checked baggage on the cart before it is put on the plane.
When I arrived in Delhi, I was in shock. But like opposite shock. It was nothing. It was like any other city I’ve been to in my life and was quite clean. The cars proceeded orderly and I didn’t see even one cow in the street. I met two Argentinean girls and we split a cab to a hostel and then went to McDonalds for dinner and that was quite interesting too. Did you know there is no such thing as a Big Mac in India? Nope. No beef. They’ve got an all chicken and veg menu.
I had booked a train ticket at the airport to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, and was to leave the next day which I did on purpose because I planned to be in Delhi for a few days after I finished making a loop through Rajasthan while I waited for my flight to leave. I would get south quick before it heated up (HAHA!) too much and then work my way north, having a total of about a month in India. I hopped on the train early the next morning to Agra and was there within a few hours and after buying my next train ticket to Varanasi, I split a rickshaw with a Canadian guy to our hostel. Seeing as the day was still young, I headed to the Agra Fort to do some sight seeing. It was pretty interesting and for the first time I hired a guide to show me around and I’m quite glad I did seeing as I learned quite a bit. Then I headed back to the hotel and grabbed some food at a restaurant with Rob, the Canadian guy, before heading to bed. Rob awoke me at 2AM vomiting loudly in the room (we got a double bed room and split the costs) and the next morning there was vomit all over the floor and toilet. I skillfully avoided touching anything and headed out early to the Taj Mahal to see the sunrise over it.
Let me tell you: it was incredible. Not Rob’s vomit, that is (which was actually kind of gross). I mean the Taj Mahal. What an impressive building. I mean, you see pictures of it and when you finally see it, you think, “okay, this is it??” But then you realize you can’t stop staring at it. You just walk around and around it in awe taking a continuous assault of pictures. I eventually sat down on a bench and just stared at it for a full 15 minutes. It was kind of like the time I actually sat through the entire Tomb Raider movie because every time I got up to turn it off, there would be an action scene with (my future wife) Angelina Jolie and I would sit back down and gape. Even after I left, I kept flipping on my camera and flipping through the pictures to get another look. Sometimes you can’t stop starting at beauty. The best thing was that it was free! You see, it’s actually quite expensive to get into the Taj Mahal. You have to pay nearly 20 bucks to walk around it and snap a few pictures but it just so happened that the day I chose to go was UNESCO World Heritage Day which entitled me to free admission! Man oh man.
I then decided that I wanted to mail my boots and some other stuff home to literally take a load off my back by reducing the bulk of my backpack. My god…what an ordeal?
I took a rickshaw to the post office with my stuff in a bag where I thought I could buy a box to mail it in. “Nope,” they told me. “We don’t do that here. Go to the market.”
My rickshaw driver took me to a store where I bought a box. I put my stuff in it and went back to the post office.
“You can’t mail it like this! It needs to be covered with a white cloth and then sewn shut and sealed with wax!”
WHAT THE HELL?? How the hell can a country develop if every time someone wants to send a box somewhere, they have to sew fabric around it and pour wax on it. Okay. Whatever. How much does it cost? I asked.
“We don’t do that here. Go to the market.”
I went to the market and a guy charged me $2 bucks to spent 45 minutes sewing a cloth around the box and then pouring wax on the folds to “seal” it. My friend, I ask you. Where the hell am I?
So anyways, I got that done. I then packed my bag, made sure Rob was going to live (he would, he would just need a day or two to recover from the food poisoning and the people at the hotel would bring him food and water), I hopped on a bus to Fatehpur Sikri, the home of a bunch of ruins of an ancient city and a really cool mosque. When I arrived, I found out that that was free too because of the World Heritage Day deal and I spent quite a while wandering around. I was quite impressed.
That night I sat around and tried to figure out my plan. I would go to Varanasi and then head west to see a few more cities before heading back to Delhi. It was hot, but I really wanted to see this stuff. The next day I took the bus back to Agra, paid a hotel half the normal rate to stay there until my train left in the evening and sat around for a few hours. I bought some water only to find that the bottles had all been refilled with tap water and took them back. The next ones he sold me were also bad and I was starting to get mad. He finally sold me some good ones, unfortunately I had taken a drink from one of them because I wasn’t paying attention to which of the two bottles in front of me was the bad one (more on that later). So I then caught my train at 9:00PM to Varanasi, which I thought would only be 12 hours but ended up being closer to 17…in an unairconditioned barely 6 feet long compartment where I was expected to keep my bag and sleep. I had to sleep in a fetal position since my bag took up a huge portion of it and I tossed and turned uncomfortably the entire night as the chains holding up the bed dug into my back and ass. What a night. Everyone stared, but at least they tried to pretend like they weren’t by looking away when I looked at them. The next day I arrived at Varanasi in scorching heat and a dodgy stomach and tried to get a rickshaw to somewhere near the hotel of my choice so the rickshaw driver wouldn’t go in with me and try to get a commission for bringing me (which I would pay for in the cost of my hotel room). They kept telling me they couldn’t bring me to where I wanted to go and I would have to tell them the exact hotel which until they saw that I was about to punch one of them if they didn’t go. And that’s when the scene I opened up this travelogue with unfolded before me. What a place!
I was already getting sick but didn’t know it so I was lacking energy and tried to see what I could see, and then the rushed trips to the bathroom started. I walked around the Ganges and saw all the people praying and meditating and stuff and the next morning I got up at sunrise and saw everyone bathing in it and man was it disgusting. There are heaps of trash in it and (really) raw sewage pumped directly in it every day and you see everyone just plays around in it. My god…but it’s interesting to say the very least.
It wasn’t long before I had to run back to the hotel as my stomach informed me that it had an appointment with the bathroom and I then decided I had to escape. The heat and the chaos was taxing me and I was really getting worn down. It wasn’t that I was shocked really. I’ve seen bits and pieces of what I saw all over the world and it wasn’t that strange. It was just such an assault all at once and I think it was physically impossible for me to handle it all seeing as my body was fighting to recover from what I found out was an intestinal bacterial infection after a visit to the doctor (I’ve only seen a doctor once on this whole trip for stomach problems so that should tell you how serious it was) and I was very dehydrated because everything I took in came directly out. I found a hotel in my book with air conditioning and cable TV and locked myself in it with 12 bananas for two days and tried to recover. I also booked a flight back to Delhi.
And so here I am, back in Delhi. I booked my ticket to Hong Kong yesterday for the 25th and I’ll be there soon. I’m about 80% recovered and I’m feeling a lot better. At least…you know…not like I want to die or like I’m giving birth to the devil’s son (who happens to be bringing out my soul with his claws) every time I rush to the toilet, and I don’t think I’m going to be doing a lot of sight seeing here in Delhi. It’s so hot here, over 100 degrees and it is so much work just to go outside in my condition. Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow though. And as much as I want to see India, I know it’s impossible. There is no way I can physically do it without driving myself into the ground and having to take a flight back home to recover. I could head up to the north where it’s much cooler, but I don’t want to see that as much as I want to see other parts of the world. You need to be wise when you travel on a long trip like this because it’s easy to get burned out. I saw the Taj Mahal and the Ganges and that is good enough for right now because I know the other stuff I want to see can be seen in a three week vacation at any other point in my life (as long as it is in February, the cool and dry season in India). I got a dose of India, although it is not anywhere near comprehensive, nor authoritative. But the little that I did see was incredibly interesting. Although development is not as blatant as it was in Beijing, it’s obvious that this place is developing incredibly. People are becoming more educated and more wealthy and the fact that New Delhi was just like any other city instead of chaos speaks volumes. It’s happening. And it will be interesting to see how Varanasi has changed in a few years when I come back. One thing that is unique about India is that it is itself so incredibly unique. It is different from anything you’ve ever seen in your life and it does things its own way. People still dress in the traditional brightly colored saris, eat their unique cuisine, let cows wander the streets because they are sacred, and a million other things unique to India where many other cultures have conformed to western (and by that, I mean American) culture and standards. This place is its own and it always will be. It was interesting to see the source of all the influence this place has exercised over all the other Asian countries too. But this traditional culture will change as India evolves and it will be equally interesting to see how they confront issues when the Old and New clash. When India becomes a global superstar, will they still let cows wander the streets? They hold up traffic and defecate in the streets. Things like that will need to be addressed and handled. At the airport, everyone was trying to run down the street to the taxis and a man told them all to stop because it was much more orderly and that running down the road after the taxis instead of letting them come one by one and letting everyone get in from the line “only leads to chaos,” and I saw everyone taking sides. Some wanted order and some wanted “the Indian way” and it kind of embodied a developing country and its struggle to modernize. Sooner or later people realize that lines are good things. And when that happens, it’s indicative of a place that is on the up and up.
All in all, I enjoyed my week and a half in India and although I am leaving with my tail between my legs and only 1/30th of my visa being used, I will be back.
And when I come back, I’ll be ready.
Ahhhhh, Kathmandu…I have been here for over a week now and I can attest to the fact that it is indeed a very interesting place. The first thing one takes note of upon arriving is how the city is laid out. All the tourists congregate in a section of the city called Thamel which comprises of about 4 main parallel streets and a seemingly infinite number of little side streets and alley ways which turn a relatively small space into a sprawling metropolis. As you walk down the narrow one and a half lane street, old multistory buildings tower over you and people, taxis, animals, bicycles, and motorcycles flow around you like water. Horns honk, people yell, cars zip by, music blares from the many stores and street performers and people all compete for your attention in a desperate attempt to sell you anything from fruit to trekking tours to marijuana.
It’s a trip. Kids walk by you and whisper in your ear “HELLO! (then in a low trancelike voice) marijuanasmokehash?” and keep walking by. Rickshaw drivers ride along side of you and beg for you to let them take you where you want to go (they try to list all the major attractions – including the whore houses). Old women come up to you and show you bracelets, “good price!”, people come up with business cards touting their credentials as a tour guide, old men sit in the front of their shops and when they see you they smile and point inside – “have a look!” And then there are the people who have a scam, but don’t reveal what it is. They are just interested in you and say anything to get your attention. They might ask your name, where you’re from, what the print on your shirt means, where you’re going, the time (despite the fact that they have a watch), if they can feel the fabric of your shirt, how much something you have costs, or something to that effect. You get pretty good at blowing them off – i.e. answering their question then picking up the pace and leaving them in the dust.
It’s really bad if you have a huge backpack because everyone touting a hotel pounces on you. While trying to find my buddy’s guesthouse so I could move to it, a guy greeted me with the usual line. I told him I already had a guesthouse and he asked which one. I wasn’t sure where it was and he told me it was in the opposite direction. I didn’t believe him and told him so.
Once in Pokhara, I had all the taxi drivers compete for me by trying to toss a stone nearest to a bottle I put 20 feet away. The closest won. It was pretty funny because these guys just pounce on you as soon as you get off the bus and they all try to make you feel guilty for not going with them.
The next thing you notice about Kathmandu is that everyone seems to be throwing water into the streets from big buckets. Everywhere you go there is some guy tossing water on your shoes. As you can imagine, it’s difficult to escape it because the streets are so narrow and you’re too busy dodging taxis and motorcycles zipping by mere inches from you. Dogs wander and lounge around on the streets and usually become a lot more active once the sun sets usually playfully following you home on your way home from a pub. And then there’s the random stuff you see for sale.
Guys are set up all over the place selling all sorts of random stuff, from chess sets to piles of bright multi-colored powders (for God knows what). People come up to you with a polished wooden Buddha or elephant wrapped in cloth and offer to sell it to you like it’s some sort of nuclear weapon they have to keep concealed.
But the tourists are one of the funniest groups to watch. It’s got a mix not unlike Bangkok with everything from the first time traveler college kids, to the middle age guys trying to find themselves, to the half brain dead hippies. It’s not quite as diverse though, mind you, seeing as it takes a bit of a different type of person to come here despite the warnings of civil unrest and the like (which everyone finds out isn’t really much of a concern when they arrive).
Seeing as I’ve been here for a while now, I’ve had time to examine the city and am actually getting a bit bored with it. I’ve been sick for a few days (today is the first day I feel back to normal, but I’m still being cautious with my diet) and have been hanging out with my friends from the Annapurna trek quite a bit. I found out that I actually had already met one of the Israeli girls about 4 months ago in Vietnam. What a coincidence! I have full cable in my hotel room, which helps break the boredom. But more than anything, it’s nice to just relax. I’m here until Friday because I have to wait for my Indian visa, and then the race begins again. I found out something about myself and that I wasn’t really ready for, yesterday.
I suck at pool.
I grew up with a pool table and am all right on an American sized table with American sized billiard balls, but everywhere else in the world they have these tiny little balls and pockets. You would think that as much as I’ve traveled and played, I would have gotten good…but no. I suck. The good news is that most everyone else does too.
It’s really funny to watch a bunch of guys around a pool table. Everyone tries to make their intended shot and when it doesn’t make it, they hang on to the pool stick and watch the balls like there is some other secret shot they were actually trying to make even though anything that actually goes in is an accident. It’s so funny. I just want to look at them and say, “dude…just give me the stick.” I have a buddy Tim back home (one of the most talented and modest guys I’ve ever met) that would give you the stick if he made a ball in that he didn’t intend and just admit that he didn’t intend for it to go in.
I did some sight seeing today and went to see the monkey temple and the cemetery. The monkey temple wasn’t anything spectacular and I was actually pretty disappointed by it. Unlike most temples, this one just had people selling stuff in little stalls everywhere you looked. It got put on the map because it’s got monkeys everywhere, which although it’s interesting, it’s nothing spectacular. All the religious stuff was behind bars. The cemetery was a little more interesting but not by much. The tourists go there because they cremate bodies right on in the open in fires next to a little river (in case you were wondering, the burned bodies smell a lot like barbeque). After the bodies have been sufficiently burned, they dump the ashes and stuff into the murky and stinky brown water. Kids walk through it with wheel barrows and scavenge the unburned wood and monkeys swim around in it looking for stuff to eat. Down stream, women wash dishes in the water. I’m beyond the stage where I would be disgusted or in dismay. I just made sure I didn’t eat anywhere near the river.
So I get my Indian visa tomorrow then it’s off to India. If you think what I just described about the cemetery river was something, wait until I tell you about the Ganges!
So I last left off with me just about to leave for two weeks of trekking in the Nepalese Himalayas. In the morning, Zach and I grabbed some coffee and went to look for our bus. We eventually found where it was supposed to be, but soon realized that it wasn’t there. Some other bus guy put us on his bus and said our bus was “all gone”. We didn’t ask. I went to use the bathroom and found the most disgusting toilet in all the world. Right here in Kathmandu. It was a little shack with a battered up door that you had to pry open. When you got in, there was no electricity so you couldn’t see in the depths where the toilet was. Apparently, I wasn’t the first one to have this problem. From what I gathered, people couldn’t find the hole in the back of the shack, so they just went #2 all over the floor. Upon stepping inside, I saw a present waiting for me in front of the sink. After nearly puking, I went outside and took a leak on the back of the shack.
We set off on our 9 hour bus ride through the mountains of Nepal. Let me tell you, the countryside is incredible. It’s like something out of another world. Beautiful snowcapped mountains and rice terrace filled valleys with brightly dressed people planting rice and riding water buffalos to till the flooded soil. I can assure you, you have never seen green until you have seen a freshly planted rice field. The neon green is enough to almost hurt your eyes. After arriving at Pokhara, Zach and I wandered around town. I went in search of cheap and fast internet (which seems to be an impossible combination in Nepal) and ended up getting lost and wandering the streets. I wound up playing a senile old man chess on the sidewalk for a few hours. He won.
The next day, we set off for Besi Sahar, which is the starting point of the trek. The bus ride was incredible. It was kind of like being drunk and trying to stay on one of those bucking broncos in a country bar. The seats were rock hard and my knees were smashed into the seat in front of me. They never shut the doors and people hung on to the outside as we went. Zach and I met a Canadian guy who I soon found out was in Bangkok when I was and saw the same fight I saw before I left (see previous post). He told me that the guy got punched because he stole some money from two guys or something. Crazy. After passing two buses that had smashed into each other head on, we eventually arrived. We checked into our hotel and got dinner. The Canadian guy was a trip. He was a pot head, first off. And he tried very hard to tell everyone how generous he was. He told us stories of his travels and what not. We argued for hours about corporations and the free market (for which I am a staunch supporter, but this guy is a Canadian, and he and an English guy had gotten into the argument – and the Canadians and Europeans are usually protectionist). He said that it was corporate greed and greed in general that would destroy the planet and how he was disgusted by it. He told us how religion wasn’t necessary to be moral. Then he told me how he was going to get an MP3 player like mine. How? He was going to commit insurance fraud. I listened to his explanation quietly.
“Yeah, it’s great. I’ll get free stuff, and I get to fuck over a big corporation. HAHA!”
Irony aside (speaking of greed), I asked him who was really going to suffer. The corporation would report a loss and the premiums for everyone would go up. Not only that, it would cut into profits and the share price would go down, which would mean old ladies would lose money on their retirement IRA’s. The corporate bosses would continue to get paid the same. He tried to argue for a little while and then stormed off to go smoke some pot. In addition, a religious person would have a hard time justifying behavior like that in the face of God. As unreligious as I am, it has its virtues in that it puts forth an unquestioning moral code. I highly doubt that all the Catholic priests that molested all those little boys thought that what they were doing was right. But the human brain can justify any number of things if there is no concrete reference.
So the next day, we headed off to start the trek. I like to hike alone so I got a late start and set off. It was a hot day. I wondered if I would see any Maoists. But the thing about Nepal is that there is military everywhere. Guys with guns are everywhere you look. They seemed to have a pretty good control over the situation in the cities.
The scenery was beautiful. You follow a river through a massive valley with the snowy Annapurna mountain range up ahead. You climb your way each day further up the valley to the pass (the highest point after which you start descending each day). The scenery changes each day to something different and the best thing is that you don’t need to carry any food or equipment as you stop in little villages along the way for lunch and accommodation. Even better, you usually don’t have to pay to sleep as long as you eat at your hotel. They really take care of you and the food is great (and blody cheap). You meet people and make friends along the way. Zach and I ended up teaming up with a group of Israelis, an American girl and a girl from Guyana (yeah, it’s a country). It was a lot of fun and even more interesting seeing the Israelis in the group. They really are an interesting people and a lot of fun to boot. They are really social and love putting on music and sharing their food (and yours) with everyone. The ringleader was a guy named Kobe, one of the most alive people I have ever met. He always has a huge smile on and is always joking and laughing with everyone. It’s incredible to watch him in action. We all played chess together and joked around each evening and would then tackle the hike during the day separately (or at least, I would). I really enjoy being alone in my thoughts as I hike.
The transition each day is dramatic. You climb from the lowland valley, past healthy crops of wild marijuana up to the pine forests and then to snow filled mountain tops with frozen waterfalls and yaks along the way. Parts of the trail had to be blasted out of the faces of mountains and sometimes you are scrambling over gravel from a landslide before winding up a narrow trail over a mountain. I could try to put the experience into words, but it would be impossible. Just take a look at the pictures – I took more than enough (Pokhara). One of the most interesting things was the huge Tibetan influence. Seeing as I was no more than 10 miles away from the Tibetan border at one point, you can understand how this would be so. At the entrance of each town is a huge wall called a mani wall with prayer wheels along it. A prayer wheel is a cylinder with inscriptions on it that you turn clockwise with your hand as you walk by. It supposedly says the prayer as it spins. There are also brightly colored flags and stuppas everywhere. The wind blows the prayer into the air from the flags which are inscribed with buddhist prayers. It was fascinating to learn about this. The pictures show all of these as well as the traditional Tibetan architecture – a building made from stones piled high and a flat roof with firewood piled on top.
You are climbing a lot each day though. More than 4000 feet on some days, in preparation for the pass (close to 17,000 feet). The big worry is mountain sickness, which can strike at any altitude above about 9,000 feet. We spent a day to acclimatize at 11,000 feet in Manang which was a nice place and then took our time as we climbed higher (one day only walking for 3 hours). The symptoms are intense headache and loss of appetite and if you don’t give your body enough time at different stages to get used to the altitude. Luckily, I only got a slight headache the night before the pass and it was gone the next day. The girls we were with were having a few problems making it up (it’s really hard to hike at such a high altitude as there is not enough oxygen and it makes your bag really heavy) so I took their sleeping bags over for them. I was really surprised at how fit I was. I was able to leave last and beat everyone each day (not that I was trying, though) and I was able to race up the pass without any problem. People had porters and stuff and I was fine with my pack. I remember hiking Machu Picchu (when I nearly died of exhaustion) as I hiked. What a world of difference. If you are in shape, you can just walk and not worry about your pack. You are never exhausted and are never tired and can just keep walking without any problems. It was great! I’m really happy that I was able to maintain a certain level of fitness since New Zealand and didn’t get all out of shape. After making it over the pass, we saw the same scenery again in reverse, but it was still a bit different. I don’t think I’ve ever had so much beauty packed into 13 days in my entire life. The cold was a challenge though. One morning I woke up and my water had ice in it. The toilet water was frozen too. You just piled the blankets high and curled up to get to sleep each night. When it was all said and done though, I had hiked about 230 miles and nearly 4 vertical miles up into the atmosphere and back down again (not counting all the ups and downs).
When we started getting near the end of the trek though, we got word that there was a Maoist strike in Nepal. They were setting up a 10 day road block on the day we would arrive back to civilization. We weren’t sure if the porters were just trying to convince us to go the long way back to Pokhara (thereby getting a few more days of work out) or if it was true. We hiked back to the nearest town and found out that there really was a roadblock and everyone was afraid to drive on the roads. We couldn’t convince anyone to take us (the Maoists let tourists pass so we were going to make a big banner that said “tourist” for the side of the bus or jeep). But eventually, after sitting around the town for a while, we convinced them to let a bus pass and we all piled in. After push starting it, we were on our way and the only evidence of a roadblock that we saw was some smoldering wood in the street. We drove around it. When we got back to Pokhara though, we realized that it would be very hard to get back to Kathmandu with the strike, as that was there the main roadblocks were. I read in the paper that 7 buses had been flipped and burned. That convinced me to take a flight, which I booked immediately. Since I’m a lucky guy though, I ended up spending the entire next day waiting at the airport for my flight to leave before it was canceled and we were all told to go back home. Many people didn’t even have luggage because the airline had sent it on another plane to Kathmandu to save on the load, like the Japanese guy and Mexican girl I spent the day hanging out with. I had my luggage though, so I went back to my hotel and got laughed, at by all my friends. They had a ticket for the next day, and I changed my flight for the next day as well and after another night of partying and playing pool in Pokhara, we all got in to Kathmandu. It could have been worse. Some guys took the bus, which would only run with Army convoy. It took them 12 hours to make it to Kathmandu. I think the $60 dollar air ticket was worth every penny and I didn’t even have the risk of getting shot (I asked them if they saw the burned and shot up buses. They said yes).
And so here I am back in Kathmandu. It’s nice to have some time to relax again and I’ve got a really nice hotel. I decided that I am, in fact, going to go to India now. It’s one of the countries I’ve most looked forward to and I think I will go to India for a month, come back to Nepal, do the Everest trek and then go to Tibet. That way I can avoid the monsoon in India. But the problem is that I have to wait 7 days for the India visa and so I’m stuck here in Kathmandu for a while. I had a bout of food poisoning yesterday, but I’m okay today so I’ve got to figure out what to do. I’ve got all my friends here though and they are waiting for a Tibet visa, so I’m sure I’ll keep occupied. India is going to be cool. I think I’ll do a quick northern loop and cross over land back to Nepal.
I’ll do a post on Kathmandu soon.