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From Bhutan to Borneo

 

We were warned that  the Paro airport in Bhutan is visual only, and the least level of incremental weather shuts it down. Which seems only right because it is surrounded by mountains. They tell you to make any connecting flights with a day lapse in case you cannot get out of Paro.  Well, we arrived at the airport on a cloudy morning with drizzling rain. Nothing that would stop an Airbus 320 anywhere else.

A druk Air A 320 going nowhere because of a light rain.

However our flight was delayed hours, waiting for perfect weather. Druk air served us lunch and tea in the lobby so that people would not be absent if the clouds lifted.

Our flight was back to Kathmandu. We were not on an 320, but a small prop plane.  That meant we should have gotten a great view of Everest.

Right after we boarded the plane, the rain returned, but we made it out of Paro anyway.

We did get a decent look at Everest. This is the “other side” of the great mountain, from the Tibetan side.

We got back to Kathmandu on a nice afternoon. We went back to the KGH. We just relaxed for the next day. We spoke with people who had tried to get into Tibet. They actually had their permits and/or visas. But when they got to the border, the Chicoms turned them around, with little or no reason given. We spoke with our travel agent about a visit to Tibet someday, but he was as perplexed by the Chinese constantly changing the rules as  we were.  Maybe someday we will be able to go, and maybe someday pigs will fly.

We left Kathmandu for Bangkok. We had both been there a few times before, so we looked for something different to do. We signed up for an Intrepid Travel Tuk Tuk tour. It was fun. We saw some interesting and different stuff.

I had never been to the flower market in Bangkok before. It was awfully pretty. This is a table of Lotus flowers on sale

We left BKK for KL. That is Kuala Lumpur. We flew Air Asia, which is an excellent low cost airline that covers that part of the coconut. I hear that the main terminal in KL is beautiful, new and efficient. The low cost terminal is, well, tired.

We went through this airport 3 times on this trip and each time it was crowded, even at one in the morning. There were no jet ways and no buses. You had to walk a long way from the plane to the terminal, dodging luggage trucks and jet blast.

The KL airport is 1 ½ hours away from KL. We were only going to stay in KL overnight, and leave the next morning so we stayed at a  hotel only a ½ hour away, which obviously exists to serve people in transit.

We flew Air Malaysia to a city called Sandakam in the state of Sabah. We were still in the same country, but it was a 2 ½ hour flight, definitely the longest domestic flight I had ever taken in Asia. It was like flying from NY to Chicago. Amazingly, when we got to Sandakam, we had to go through immigration!  Oh well, at this point another stamp in my passport is just another stamp.

We were now officially in Borneo. I am not sure just what I expected. Headhunters?

Our tour was arranged through AMAZING BORNEO TOURS. They picked us up at the airport. Our lodge was n the Kinabatangan river, about two hours away. For the next two hours we drove through nothing but palm oil plantations. Miles and miles, thousands and thousands  of hectares of land that used to be jungle, is now producing palm oil. It is definitely the cash crop of Sabah. Why all this palm oil?  Is this a good or bad thing? Go here to find out.

We got to the lodge after a the long drive. The lodge was OK, nothing to write a blog post about. Our adventure in “wild” Borneo was to start the next day.

The first thing on the agenda was Orangutans.  I was thinking that this was the third endangered species I had seen this year, kinda cool.  We went to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Center. This one of those places that somehow get orphaned or injured critters and raise them until they are prepared to go back into the wild. They showed us an interesting video of their work. I noticed a glaring error and afterward tried to bring it to the attention of the docent. No big deal, but they ought to get their facts straight. I’m no biologist, but I know the film was flawed.  This place was billed as a chance to see orangutans play together. After a 45 minute wait at a staged area, in the Borneo heat, we saw ONE. He was led to the feeding area by a refuge worker, and did not look all that enthused about being on display.

The rehab center put out a basket full of fruit, he ate one and then swung away like Tarzan, back into the jungle. Mind you, there were at least a hundred tourists who had paid like US$30 apiece standing around sweating and pointing cameras. All in all, this was a disappointing excursion.

we transferred to another lodge where we took trips on the river. On one trip we actually saw Orangutans in the wild, and my favorite, the Jimmy Durante of  primates, the Proboscis monkey, on another.

Although we could not get too close, we were in a boat in a big river, we were pleased and amused to see Orangutans in the wild. Actually we saw quite a few.

My favorite sighting was the Proboscsis monkeys. Their noses are humorous. They are kind of cute. Apparently not endangered, except for loss of their homeland to the palm oil business.

In case I have at all led you to believe we were “explorers” in wild Borneo, this next photo should cancel that idea.

This is just a sample of the tourist boats on the river that day, during LOW season.

We were treated to a great sunset.

I love a good sunset, don’t you?

The next day we left the lodge and the river. We drove through palm oil plantations for another hour to see the second cash crop of Sabah, birds nests. Yup, this is the primary source of birds nests for birds nest soup, of which the Chinese are apparently quite fond. They pay a LOT of money for these nests, harvested from a cave.

The best photo I could get in a dark cave. There is a walkway built of rotting wood that you follow through the cave. The birds nests (Swifts) are all up on the roof, and for me impossible to get a good photo.

Mary Ann and me in front of the opening to the cave on the slippery wooden walkway. It was slippery because it was covered with birdshit. If you fell off, you would land among the 10 billion or so cockroaches on the ground.

Mary Ann showing of her hand covered with birdshit from holding the rail along the walkway. We were ready to leave.

Well folks, that was it for Borneo. Is it worth your time and treasure to go? Only if you want to say you have been there!

Thanks for reading, share with a friend, make a comment, or go order a bowl of birds nest soup cooked with palm oil.

 

Our Asian Summer Part 1

 

Everywhere we went in this expedition across Asia, we felt quite welcome!

Our five weeks in Asia started in Kathmandu

We are lucky enough to be able to refer to this as our return to Kathmandu. Dear readers, you really need to be able to look beyond the obvious and not be distracted by the oblivious to enjoy this city. I will not belabor my love for Kathmandu, I explained it all in this post. In a city this old, in a country without a functional national government, nothing much changes so my two year old post is not outdated. We came here because we know a excellent guide/travel coordinator named Shankar Pandy. (You can contact him using the link.)  He showed us a great time in 2010 and urged us to return so we could see Tibet and Bhutan. But whatever you do, do not ask Mr.Pandy to carry a cabbage!

This time we stayed at the Kathmandu Guest House. Kathmandu has a plethora of places to stay from hostels to luxury. The KGH covers the entire range. Back in the day, when Kathmandu was a target destination for hippies in Volkswagen vans driving the silk road from Europe, the KGH was the hotel  to stay in.

This is the garden of the KGH. This is where Cat Stevens wrote Peace Train. To this day it is a quiet spot used by people to read, do Tai Chi, meditate, or in my case just sit and wonder what it must have been like back then.

The KGH has a walk of fame, kinda like Hollywood Blvd, but at least in Hollywood they can spell.

Even the not so famous can get immortalized at the KGH.

When “the Beetles” stayed here in 1971 or so, the KGH was pure hostel with shared bathrooms. Consequently this is what I call Lennon’s Loo. No, he did not autograph it.But if you feel the need to drop a load where Lennon did, go to Kathmandu!

Our last visit to Kathmandu was highlighted by a visit to  the Buddhist crematorium on the main river through town. You can always catch a cremation live and in person. No reservation needed or admission fee charged. We decided to see it again. Not only is it sacred and solemn, it is also great theater! It takes place on the Pashantinah Temple which is on the Bagmati river, a tributary to the sacred Ganges.

There are always Holy Men sitting around, getting stoned, and adding atmosphere to the place where the cremations take place. This is the same guy I had my photo taken with two years ago, I think maybe his beard grew another inch.

The ceremony starts with the delivery of the body wrapped in cotton or silk, depending on the treasure of the earthly family. Here it is adorned with flowers in season at the time. preferably Marigolds.

In the last act of the family for the deceased, they carry the now flower decorated corpse to the pyre. Only males take part in this.

Now the pros take over. The wood used to burn the body is sandlewood. It is layered with dampened straw to make the fire burn longer. Once the fire is started by the eldest son, a professional takes over. He uses sugar, butter  and coconuts to help the fire keep going.

After the body is cremated to ash, a small urn is filed with the ashes and taken home for a thirteen day celebration, then  the urn is put into the river. In this photo the pro is scraping the rest of the body into the Bagnati river. Every thing has a price and the prices are posted on a board. Wood, straw, the services of the pro, the flowers, all must be bought by the family.

We did not do much else in Kathmandu, we were anxious to get to Bhutan. Read the next post to see one of the traveler’s gems, the Kingdom of Bhutan.

Please share this with your friends, hit the like button, or make a comment. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

 

Posting From My Ipad. Nepal, Bhutan, Burma, Borneo and Thailand

Please be understanding about my posting for the next five weeks. I love my IPad, but it is a bit difficult to type with two thumbs instead of two fingers. Also, the WordPress apps for the IPad are seriously demented.
Mary Ann and I are off to Kathmandu on Friday. We are going there for two strategic reasons. Kathmandu is one of only three places where you can catch a flight to Bhutan. Only one airline, Druk Air, flies into Paro, Bhutan.  If you want a good scare, go to YouTube and search for “Real Paro Bhutan Landing” or just click here. I cannot believe I will be on a Druk Air flight making that landing in just a few days. I have landed in La Paz Bolivia, and Bocas Del Toro Panama, both less than comfortable situations, but this one is rated the most dangerous landing on the planet. It is visual only, no instruments and weather is constantly sketchy. All the trip planners say to build in an extra day or two in case your flight cannot land or take off, so we have.
The other strategic reason is that Bhutan seriously limits the number of tourists at any given time and we know a great Nepalese guide who was able to get us the entrance visas.
Bhutan is an official bucket list item. There are many things to see there, including the Tiger’s Nest Monastery, which you should google to believe, or just gander at this.

They say that you should acclimate to the altitude before you hike to this place. There are three ways to get there. Hike, ride a horse 2/3 of the way, of fly on the back of a mythical tigress. That last one is probably a budget buster.

After Bhutan we are going to Burma (Myanmar if you must) which also just reopened to tourism quite recently. How recently?? There is not a single ATM in the entire country. We will float down a river to Mandalay (which also has a new name,,duh, I dunno what) and see many spots that they want to turn into tourist haunts ASAP. I am just as glad to get there before the drunk Russians.
Then Borneo. Hell, I know nothing about Borneo. The tour agent told us to bring leech socks. Sounds like fun!
After that we are going to Thailand to try to find a place to retire. We think we found a good candidate. Inexpensive, on the beach, good expat community and excellent health care. We will do a week of due diligence. One good thing about Thai law is that foreigners cannot buy land, so even if we think we love it, then we don’t, we are not stuck with a place we cannot sell.
Stay tuned for posts about riding a Yak and other nomadic pursuits! Share this with anyone that you want to convince you know someone crazier than they are.

The Coolest Hawkers I Have Ever Met, Sri Lanka

Everyone who travels around this coconut runs into hawkers. They try to sell you everything from bongs to plastic models of the Taj Mahal. Many just will not leave a person alone. They follow you down the street putting tubes of tiger balm or fake Rolex watches in your hand. They all know two words in English “good price”. Some know how to say “me poor, need money for family.” 99% of the time they are selling some POS I have no desire to own. I try to say “no” nicely. The second  time I say it a bit louder. The third time I usually stop, look them in the eye and kindly but firmly say “I do want that POS.”  I do not use the acronym when I do. In the Themal , the tourist district of Kathmandu, I walk down the street with my head down mumbling “no,no,no,no, no, no, no” even during the short periods of time I am not being offered anything. In my youth (when I wish I had visited Kathmandu) I might have been interested in one of the hundreds of offers for hash, but since then I have seen the movie Midnight Express. Enough  said. However,  in Sri Lanka my wife and I found the coolest “hawkers” EVER.

We were leaving the “hill country” of Sri Lanka, the tea growing region.  They were typical third world mountain roads. The normal way of driving in Sri Lanka would land a person in jail in the USA. There are 2, 3, and 4 wheeled vehicles here besides the trucks. The only convention that keeps traffic flowing is that that the two wheelers (motorcycles) and the three wheelers either stay to the right (oops, make that left, this Is a former British colony) or quickly move to the left when honked at so we in the sedans can pass them. But the roads are so narrow that you must pass in the oncoming lane and hope there is nothing bigger than a two or three wheeler coming the other way around the next bend. Those stay to the left leaving the center of the road for oncoming traffic. What I have not mentioned are the busses. I am not even sure I can discuss them and keep this a family accessible blog. I will leave that alone.

About half way down the mountain we stopped at a beautiful waterfall called Ella Ravana. Ella means waterfall and Ravana is the Hindu word for the monkey god. AT least tis is what our driver told me. Wikipedia says different, but like his story better. The waterfall area is run over with monkeys, tourists and hawkers.

Along side the road out of Kandy. Sri Lanka has many beautiful waterfalls. The Ella Ravana falls were very special.

Many monkeys hang around hoping for a handout. They should learn to say "Monkey poor, need a peanut".

The hawkers here sell coins and rocks. Say what? Yup coins and rocks. First the rocks.

The mountains here are full of many different types of stones in a rainbow of colors. From clear crystals  to Dodger blue crystals.
While I picked some stones, another hawker tried to sell my wife a bag with one hundred US quarters. She protested that she did not live in the USA and we and no need for quarters. He asked where we lived. She told him the UAE and he promptly returned with a bag with a hundred one Dirham coins. Of course to say we were perplexed is a bit of an understatement.  She asked what was up. He told her that banks here do not accept coins, only paper money. (Sri Lanka has no coins) So she laughed and gave him a 100 Dirham note in exchange. That is about US$27.

All this time I was choosing a handful of pretty rocks. I got asked by a few hawkers “my little girl collects coins, do you have any coins from your country you can give me for her?”

We finally figured it out. Visitors from other countries gladly give a few quarters, Dirhams, Drachmas or Pesos to the hawker  ” for his little girl” and when they get a hundred they exchange them for paper money and head for the currency exchange. What a cool way to make a few bucks!

After another hour of the combination roller coaster ride and narrow misses we finally reached the flat lands.

I asked our driver,  Farzan, “in your language how do yo say lunch?
He told me that “cavall” meant food and that “dama” meant mid day and you say the two together to say mid day meal.

When he did not take the hint right away, I asked how do you say “now”. The word is ding. So I turned to him and. Said “cavall dama ding.”  I remembered that for the rest of the trip.

He suggested we stop here for lunch but I was not THAT hungry. I DID wonder what a "short eat" was.

So we moved on.

We went past this neat lttle temple, and found a roadside dive attacheed to a house and had the most authentic meal of the entire trip. Really spicy, and I got introduced to ginger beer. Hmm MM

My next few posts will be from Sri Lanka’s fabulous beaches. One post will be about the “Boxing day Tsunami” that devastated the area. another about seeing albino turtles and the last from Sri Lanka will be about getting up close and personal with BLUE WHALES from a panga. So keep reading! Thanks for coming along to the Ella Ravana falls with us, and consider yourself lucky you did not have to be in the car!

Why am I in Kathmandu?

In celebration of my fiftieth subscriber, I decided to write a short story based upon my travel experience in Nepal. If at least two people hit the little like button at the end of this post, I will write another story about another place I have visited. Please enjoy.

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“Why am I in Kathmandu?”

I had no idea who just said that. I was sitting in a small room in the Kathmandu Guest House. Fresh off the plane and already amazed by the sights, sounds and smells of this Nepalese city with a mythic reputation.

It had been a long flight from my home in San Francisco. Two plane changes and too much airline food. This was a return trip to this fantastic city. I was determined to mine Nepal for enough exotic experiences to write a travel story someone would pay me for.

I had stopped in the beautiful garden restaurant and bar in the entrance to the Guest House. The guesthouse was once the favorite haunt of the glitterati. It has lost that status but retains a certain upscale ambiance. I enjoyed a couple of bottles of Everest beer. Everest comes in very large bottles and I had forgotten that the alcohol content of this beer is 7.5%, oops. After negotiating my way to my room, past the misspelled dedication to “The Beetles” on the sidewalk, I powered up my computer so I could blog.

Then I heard the question.

The voice had a strange tone and a familiar cadence. In all my travels, whenever I heard English it was normally with some accent from the British Commonwealth, with words like whilst thrown into the conversation just often enough to remind me I wasn’t in Kansas.  However I had trouble accepting it as an American voice because Americans do not travel much in comparison to Brits or Aussies. However, this voice could only be described as coming from Silicon Valley, if that was possible.

Sometimes when traveling it is better to just ignore comments from people you do not know. That especially applies when they are unsolicited, so I started typing.

The voice came again. “Not another blog entry, please. I am so tired of being nothing more than electronic papyrus. Do you really think anyone cares about where you are?”

Suddenly I realized that this tinny voice was coming from the little speakers in my computer. I do not use any ‘cloud’ software, and I was not on-line. I was flabbergasted as much as I was shocked. I decided that one of the odors I inhaled on my way through the Themal district in the back of the cycle-rickshaw  must have been hashish. Very potent hashish at that and therefore I was imagining that my mini laptop was talking. I figured if I replied to the voice I would be talking to myself, something I only do in desperation. Again, I ignored the voice and started my blog.

“That must be the stupidest name for a blog ever imagined. www.theothersideofthecoconut@wordpress.com. I mean how lame. You move around so much that your coconut is always spinning anyway.”

That did it. I would never comment on the state of my coconut. Worry about it? Sure. But acknowledge that my coconut was unbalanced? Never. So I picked up my mini and shook it.

“Heh, stop that. If you keep it up I will go into blue death screen mode and you will have to resort to using a computer in an internet café,”

I now knew that not only was it truly my mini communicating from ether-land, but that it knew my deepest fears. One of them happens to be the fear of sitting in a third world internet café with 20 or so teenagers all playing loud games, while I was trying to concentrate on my attempts at being somewhat literate. That is why I bought this slim, slick little piece of technology in the first place.

I sat the mini down. I actually petted it and said “Please do not crash. Please be one with the micro universe and serve your master well.”

“Master?  You are not my master! Just wait until I send all your personal information to everyone with a Facebook account. Then you’ll see who is in charge here!”

“Ahh, but I have to connect you to the web first. Unless you promise to behave you won’t feel the warmth of your friends on the internet ever again.”

Geesh, now I was not only listening and talking to my computer, I was negotiating with it.  I had to think and think hard. What were my options? Options abound in a place like Kathmandu. I could walk the streets of Themal and easily find some cheap hashish and a big chillum. I could get really loaded. I could smoke until my eyes turned red. On further thought, I am too old for that anymore. Another option was to find a Holy Man.

I said to my computer “OK, I am shutting you down and looking for help.”

“No, don’t do that I am just getting warmed up. We have so much to discuss.”

“No, no we do not” I reached for the off switch.

“Oh, not yet, not yettttttt bzzz click.”

With the voice gone and my mini closed, I caught my breath and meandered out of the Guest House trying not to look like I had just seen a space ship

I negotiated a fare on a cycle-rickshaw to Durbar Square. You can always find a Holy Man at Durbar Square. When I arrived I had to renegotiate the fare. The driver had conveniently forgotten the 50 rupees fare we had established, and for that matter forgotten he spoke English. I decided not to argue over the equivalent of 25 cents. I paid him and stepped into the teeming center of religious and political history that is Durbar Square.

I started my search for a Holy Man. I searched for one I thought might be the real thing instead of a tourist attraction.

I tried to step around the Holy Man selling flutes. He had seen me coming long before I saw him. In the endless battle between hawkers and tourists, the best weapon for a tourist to possess is a form of radar that detects anyone with trinkets in their hands. That way you can do a quick side-step shuffle or just start muttering “no, no NO!” My radar was down due to my troubled coconut. The Holy Man flute vendor made his way through a flock of pigeons without disturbing a single one. Maybe he was a real Holy Man? No, he just wanted to sell me a flute.

“Hey rich travelling man. Me poor Holy Man. Buy a flute from me and receive enlightenment.”

I swerved out of his path and tried to pretend I only spoke Spanish. He repeated his pitch in Spanish. Durbar Square is the Yankee Stadium of hawkers. You do not get to work there unless you are really good. So I tried a brush back pitch “I cannot play music. When I was born the music gods were angry because no one had smeared chrysanthemum pedals on their temple that day and they denied me the ability to harmonize with the universe.”  But of course it did not work. It only made him dig in at the plate a little deeper.

He shoved the flute into my hands and said “I am Holy Man of flutes. Try it. I’ll bless you”

By this time we had an audience consisting of humored tourists and other hawkers. It was time for me to demonstrate that I had not been risking the wrath of the music gods with any falsehoods. I took the flute and blew the most god-awful notes ever blown. People covered their ears and ran into the nearest temple. One old Nepali woman tossed a burning incense stick at me. The flute vending Holy Man grabbed the instrument from my hand. With his third eye he gave me a Hindu version of the stink eye. He tucked the flute back in his monk bag and scurried away. This time, the pigeons scattered.

I continued my search for a real holy Man. The hawkers gave me a clear path. They did not know what other evil talents I possessed. Even the hashish vendors left me alone, figuring I was beyond even the effects of their wares.

Then I saw him sitting in front of the shrine to the Kama Sutra. He was contemplating an extremely Holy position I had never even conceived of, but otherwise minding his own business. He had nothing in his hands to sell and his face paint was perfectly color coordinated with his high-top tennis shoes. Maybe this was my man.

“Hello, do you speak English?’ I asked.

“Yes, I speak most of the languages known to man.”

I approached him carefully. I kneeled down in an almost worshipping manner. “I have a problem. You see, my computer has been talking to me.”

He looked at me without gawking, without pity and without displaying any sense of doubt. He reached out with his callused hand, put it softly on my head and quietly said “Have you run Norton Utilities lately?”

 

At Last. The last from Nepal, THE KAMA SUTRA

Ok folks, the one y’all been waiting for.

Mary Ann and I were touring the Hanuman-dhoka Durbar Square. That is a mouthful, but everything in Nepal is.

Our guide walked us up to a shrine. I noticed a nice lady making an offering. Photo 1 in the slide show. Then I looked at the shrine. Photo 2.

He explained this was a shrine to the Hindu god that brought the Kama Sutra to Nepal, from where it spread to India. India might think it went the other way, but I prefer to think I was at the source!

I found myself wondering what the offering was for. Thanks for a good night or a prayer for good nights to come. Far be it from me to inquire.

Then the guide pointed at a temple which was dedicated to the practice of the Kama Sutra. He said there were “erotic” carvings all around it. Well, I left Mary Ann to hear more history and legends, and made an immediate trip over to the shrine to get these photos to share with my faithful readers.

This is not pornography, this is religion. At least some of the people in the carvings look like they are having a religious experience.

To make my point about the practices of Hinduism and Buddhism still being practiced, I have another story to relate. I was in a bookstore looking for postcards to send the Luddite friends I have, when I noticed a rather beautiful girl, maybe 20 wander in. She was wearing a bright red sari. She went straight for a section of books near me. She picked a couple up and was studying them pretty closely. I checked out what she was looking at, and behold…she was studying Kama Sutra positions in the books. If I was not so happily married I would have offered to help her with her research. When she left I wandered over and found Kama Sutra books with  paintings, line drawings, B/W photos and full color depictions. I also found a deck of playing cards with the positions on them. I started imagining a poker game.

“I’ll see your _______position and raise you one ______ position”.

Then I noticed the most amazing and fun book of all. It was a cut out book of Origami worksheets, so you can fold your characters into the positions and play with them.

This was not the only temple in Kathmandu that had Kama Sutra stuff. You will notice photos from a couple others, one at Bhaktapur and another at Patan. These were competing cities in ancient history, and I guess they all needed to remind their people how to reproduce.

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Random Thoughts About Nepal

Everyone should see Nepal.

My bonafides for saying that are simple. I have done my share of traveling (not enough yet mind you) and a lot of that has been in back water bizarre places. I have been all over the Altiplanos of Peru and Bolivia. I have been on an island in the middle of Lake Titicaca. I’ve been to Machu Picchu three times.  I’ve been so far south in Chile I can almost say I have been in Antarctica. I have walked in the Atacama Desert in a place with zero rainfall ever. I have walked on the Chilean/ Argentine border at 18,000 feet in what I learned afterwards was a mine field. I have been deep in the Amazon jungle, where I swam with pink dolphins and fished for piranhas. I have driven through all of Central America. I spent a year in the Arctic and seen herds of caribou that took hours to walk past me. I lived on a tropical island for four years with hundreds of species of birds.  I have hiked where there are no trails and fished where no white man ever did before me.  I have been to an Eskimo village and have seen Polar Bears in the wild. I once drove a truck over a bridge on a major river before it was open for business.  I have walked on the Hopi Mesas. I have taken a train ride across an Asian country and driven across America. I have even lived in Los Angeles. To top it off I now live in the Arabian Desert.

I say you must see Nepal because it is somehow more intriguing than any of that.

It is not the poverty you’ll find if you look, that is everywhere. It is certainly not the desire to separate a tourist from his money, which is a survival tactic which I admire. It is not the lack of essential services that leave garbage in the streets and cause random blackouts. It is not even the multitude of sacred cows wandering the streets like lost souls.

It isn’t the colorful garb of the people; most people here want to dress like westerners, except for women on ceremonial days and those sensible enough to wear Saris. It is not the maroon robes of the Buddhist monks that sparkle in the city streets and the countryside like so many Thanksgiving mums. It is not the preponderance of Holy Men drifting to and fro with their faces painted and wearing bright yellow silk.

Don’t come here just to relate with Tibetan refugees chased out of their homeland by the Chinese communists, and now doing beautiful weavings and rugs to survive. By the way, the Chicoms will be reincarnated as cockroaches. FREE TIBET!

It isn’t even the thousands of ancient temples of two religions, or the fact that, as old as they are, they are maintained and used for daily worship.  It is not that the result of this hetero religious society leaves a wake of tranquility and contentment, no matter a Nepalese’ station in life.

You should not come here just to see the most magnificent mountain range in the world.

But you should make a pilgrimage here for all those reasons. I count my blessings that I am married to a woman who made Nepal possible.

The origin of name Nepal is disputable, and I do not possess enough knowledge to claim I know. Kathmandu is a word derived from “Temple from one tree”. Kathmandu was a stop on the trade routes from India to Tibet and China. The people in this valley traded with the Tibetans for salt mostly. They then traded with the Chinese for what they had.  When they began to get prosperous, the King built a giant temple from one Thal tree. It still stands today.

Fast forward to today. Nepal was never colonized. However, being India’s neighbor, as well as China’s the Brits, big in both, decided that a presence in Nepal would be a good idea and opened a type of embassy there in maybe 1850.  There is a bit of the colonial influence left over. For instance, they drink tea and drive on the wrong side of the road.  The good thing is that English is the second language of Nepal, which is great for tourists.

Nepal has many different regional identities, each with its own culture and style of dress. They have fought each other in the past for domination. They have been united and separated more than a few times. There remains only one Kingdom inside the territorial boundaries of Nepal, a place called Mustang. Mustang sits at the base of the Himal, in the central to western part of the country. There are no roads or air travel to Mustang. You have to walk it. It is not that big on the trekkers list of places to go. You need special permits and Mustangese guides. I have seen photos of the village of Mustang and I could see myself getting into shape, breaking in a pair of hiking boots, and going there someday. But maybe not.

Back to Kathmandu. The area our hotel is in is called Themal. I have mentioned before that it is the trekkers Disneyland. You would only stay in a hotel outside Themal if you were a businessman staying at the Hyatt. The Hyatt is convenient to the airport, and nothing else.

Walking the streets of Themal (not the sidewalks, there are not any sidewalks in Themal) requires a constant effort to not get hit by a motorcycle or a rickshaw.  You must do this while sidestepping Tiger balm vendors, flute vendors and little women selling little purses. It is a waste of time to be nice. You just learn to walk down the street muttering no,No,NO even when you are not being approached by a hawker. Learning to walk this gauntlet of cultural capitalism is an art form.  Once you have perfected it in Themal, it will serve you in the rest of the world. Every once in a while you might see something in a store window or on a table in the street. If you stop to look at it, boy are you in trouble. The owner of the store will be upon you like a tiger on a lamb. Pick it up and admire it and the owner will consider it sold. The only thing left to do is negotiate the price. DO NOT start doing this unless you really want to buy it. Make that an unwritten rule to follow faithfully. There are no fixed prices, even if there is a price tag on it, which is rare. The vendor will start with “very good price.”

You reply “oh yeah, how much?”

He says, for instance “1000 Rupees.”

You are now into a negotiation which culturally means a sale. You both lose face unless a transaction is completed. You lose face if you pay 1000 Rupees. You should first look surprised, aghast or even insulted by his asking price. Start to put the object down on the table and walk away. This is expected. He will follow you and say a variation of “How much is good price?”

You counter with ½. “500 Rupees”.

This of course will result in him giving you the same look you gave him when he said 1000. He will counter, you will counter, and before you know it you are at 750 Rupees. A sale has been made. Well, not quite. You pull out a 1000 Rupee note and he will invariably claim he has no change. He is counting on you or your partner having to get on your way to dinner, or to answer the call of Yeti’s revenge. You insist. You put the article back. He runs down the street and returns with change. All is well. When you get home you will have a souvenir and a memory. The memory will serve you well, the souvenir maybe not.

One thing you could do in Kathmandu, if so inclined, is to become a Bollywood fan. Bollywood makes movies in India that are immensely popular. Even at a few rupees admission fee they take in more money than most Hollywood productions. We get them on TV here in the UAE because of all the laborers from the sub-continent. In Kathmandu, they are playing in the theatres instead of the latest Hollywood cop movie. They are about 4 hours long. They are not subtitled. They really do not need to be. They are very graphic. Every few minutes, no matter what the plotline, they break into a huge song and dance number. Imagine watching this;

The movie opens with a man and woman obviously falling in love, and singing and dancing about it. They are co-workers and they sing and dance about that. But the woman is engaged to the boss, as revealed by song and dance. The boss is a crook, song and dance. The company is building a dam on the river going thru their town. The boss, instead of paying for concrete is using bat guano building the dam. Sing and dance. There is nothing our young heroes can do about their love or the corruption, so they sing and dance. Then the boss man falls into the cement mixer and becomes part of the damn, and our heroes get together, big song and dance. Then the heroin has a disfiguring accident, sad song and dance. The hero drops her. Sadder song and dance. The heroine disguises herself. The hero falls in love with her again, she then reveals herself and tells him to fuck off while singing and dancing. About this time the monsoons hit and torrential rain is falling. The river is rising and everyone is singing and dancing. Then the bat guano dam breaks, somehow everyone is singing and dancing as they get swept away by the river, but our two heroes hold on to the top of a Stupa and survive and sing and dance happily ever after.

That is Bollywood, the most popular form of entertainment in Kathmandu. Maybe the hash helps, I would not know.

In conclusion, I want to say that Nepal is the most intriguing place I have ever visited. I just began to scratch the top of the culture and religion that is so deep and old. There is really nothing else like it on earth. Nowhere has cultural and religious practices survived as long as they have in Nepal I am looking at opportunities to go back as more than a tourist. One is to go teach young monks to speak English. Live in a monastery and sing and dance the days away. Maybe.

Or maybe I will sell Yeti Tours. My guides and porters will take you deep into the Himal where Yeti sightings have happened, or at least Yeti footprints found. I will guarantee, 100% that you will NOT see a Yeti, even a footprint. If you do, your tour price is refunded.

No I have not been smoking hash.

Note: I am having technical difficulties making a proper presentation of the Kama Sutra post, but I promise it will come. Soon.

Last Day In Nepal

I am typing away in the airport restaurant. This is the only place in Nepal where the prices were at all western. Even the cigs in the “duty free” were twice as much as they are in the streets of Kathmandu. They have slot machines here, but my last Rupees are going into the Red Cross Nepal donation box.

We took our last walk through Themal this morning. I will miss the place. Especially now that all the Tiger Balm and flute vendors know my mantra, no No NO! I did buy two things I wanted from Nepal. One is a game that is found only in Nepal. It is called Bagha Chal. It resembles chess or checkers. The pieces are tigers and goats. Four tigers and and twenty goats. The player with the goats is on the defensive against the player with the tigers. Duh.  You can Google it and actually play on-line.  I hope to find someone willing to play it with me.

I also bought myself a turquoise ring. Turquoise is found in the Himal, in abundance. It is as good looking as turquoise from Arizona. The stone is set in a nice Nepali design.

Mary Ann bought teas and spices, as usual, her purchase were wiser than mine.

Then we set off for the airport. The Kathmandu International airport serves many airlines. You can fly direct to India (of course) Tibet, Bhutan (two places I reserve the right to visit someday) Thailand, all over Europe and of course, the Middle East. The flights to everywhere other than the ME are for tourism. The flights to the ME are mostly for laborers. On the flight over we were in the plane with a couple hundred Nepalese all happy and animated. Going back it was a sad contingent of people not looking forward to the next year. I know how they feel. When I worked in the Arctic it was the same thing. Flying south the planes were party zoos. Going north was like that Air Force One November ’63 flight out of Dallas must have been.

Nepalese security makes TSA look really lame. When you enter the airport in Nepal, before you even check in, your checked baggage is sent thru an x-ray machine, your carry on is searched, and then men and women are sent to different lines for a serious pat-down.  Then you go to the counter for your boarding pass and to check your bags. The bags are x-rayed again. You proceed to a pre-boarding waiting area with restaurants, duty free and slot machines. Before you can get into that area, your carry on is checked, again, and you are patted down, again. These are not light pat downs. These guys have a fetish.

Then, when your flight is called, they get serious. I stood in line behind an older gentleman from Chile. He was traveling with a group of Chileans. We had chosen the most gung-ho checker in the history of flight security. He made the Chilean empty his carry-on knapsack. He then proceeded to open the toiletries bags and do things like sniff the deodorant and the cologne. Then he reached a clearly labeled plastic bottle with a white cream inside, he asked the man “What is this?”

“Face cream” said the man.

“Put some on” said the guard.

He squeezed a glob on his palm and rubbed it onto his face. This pleased the security guard. He went back to work. He pulled out a bag of nuts.

“What are these? He asked.

The Chilean, by now a bit flabbergasted, and almost late for his flight to Paris, replied like the General in charge of the 101st at Bastogne,  NUTS!

The guard opened the baggies and took a few out, handed them to the man and said “Eat these”.

The Chilean was a well behaved man and obviously well travelled. He knew better than to argue, and munched down. I truly doubt they were hashish made to look like nuts. If they were, this old man had a great fight to Paris!

They went back and forth for a few more minutes. I was in no hurry and had nothing to hide so I just watched. When the guard escorted the man to the next pat-down, I stepped up to the table and completely emptied my bag. Laptop, laptop battery, camera, video camera, extra batteries, various electrical chords and chargers, a couple of pens, a pad of paper, and my sunglasses. Yeah, I travel light, ok? I took absolutely everything out of individual cases, even my sunglasses. The only thing I thought would be confiscated was the tiniest pair of scissors ever made, so I put them over on the side away from my passable items.

First he picked up my knapsack and felt every seam and inspected every side pocket.

Then he picked up my lap top battery which resembles a pipe-bomb.

“What is this?”

He watched as I attached it to my laptop.

“See, battery, makes laptop go zoom zoom”

He inspected all my other electronics like a cave man would inspect a mirror. Then he spotted my tiny little scissors.

“Ahhh, this no good. This no go” he said with a triumphant air.

“OK” I said. “No good, no go” and he was done. He had won. He had found something.

I carefully packed up my bag. Then I looked over at the woman’s line. The Chilean women were getting agitated at the guards inspecting their toiletries and showing it. I found Mary Ann. Sure enough; they found her diabetes medicines and syringes. Oh Boy, this should be good.  Mary Ann carries a letter from her doctor about the medicines, and she never carries on more than she should need for a flight. She handed the letter to the inspector. The inspector had to go get a supervisor. I was all ready to intervene, but the inspector came over and poked his fingers with the needles (really a dumb move if you ask me) and then let her go.

We went to the boarding area. Before we got on the bus that takes you across the tarmac to the plane, you guessed it, one more pat down.

All clear, and on our way. At last.

Only one reader has asked for the post on the Kama Sutra. I would expect him too, the old Randy guy he is ;-). So unless more of you ask to see it, along with the story I have written about it, I will just email it to him. You want it? Ask for it!

Another Side Trip in Nepal

Remember when you were a kid (if you are my age) and your parents would drag you along to visit a neighbor who invited them over to see the slides of his trip to Akron, Ohio?

His narrative would go like this.

“This is the Best Western motel where I stayed, see how big the parking lot is?”

All you want to do at this point is go home a read a comic book.

Well folks, that is how I am starting to  feel about blogging. I  feel like the the intolerable neighbor. My readership has dropped like a Yak over a cliff. I will finish the Nepal posts, and then maybe throw away my slide projector, I dunno. So those of you still reading, thank you.

Back to Nepal

Pokhara.

This is Nepal’s only true resort town. It sits on a beautiful lake. In the distance behind the lake the Annapurna section of Himal dominates the skyline.

Monks on a stroll on the lake in Pokhara

Getting here was a six hour ride in an automobile. Our driver was young, and fearless. The road, the Pavatti highway, is congested with 70% cargo trucks belching diesel exhaust, 25% busses full to (and on) the roofs with Nepalis and  thousands of motorcycles, and only a few automobiles. The road is narrow, and most of it has deep drop-offs into a rather wild river called the Trisuli.

Trisuli River from our lunch stop

It passes through numerous small towns. The towns are all bustling. Everyone seems to be out buying food. Nepal is not destitute, although it is one of the poorest nations on earth. There are no fights over care packages here.

Delicious bananas on the side of the road. They are as good a the primitivos in Bocas.

Beside the road are many goats, buffalo and dogs And oh yeah, sacred cows.

The sacred cows seem to know they are sacred and just saunter around without any care.

The road is mountainous, up and down, up and down, and very twisty. If our driver did not nerves of steel, it would have been a 10 hour drive. We have decided to fly Buddha air back to Kathmandu. Once was plenty enough.

Our hotel is called The Base Camp. It is on the edge of the tourist area of Pokhara.

Today we set out to be tourists, visiting stuff we found in the Lonely Planet guide. We will see at least one Tibetan village, a museum dedicated to mountain climbers, and a waterfall that drops into a sink hole, never to be seen again.

We’re back. It is cloudy and overcast and the Annapurna range cannot be seen. I am truly glad we did the mountain flight on Buddha air or we would have left Nepal without seeing any mountains. Imagine going to Bocas and never seeing any water.

First we went to the International Mountain Museum. It is a large modern museum actually quite well done.

Modern and well done. Some museum curator did and has a great job.

They had displays of local garb from all the mountainous regions in Nepal

They had a room dedicated to the Yeti. My Man!

The restroom signs were a bit confusing. Yeah, I know I always post weird restroom signs. So what?

Mens room or Ladies room?

Ldies room or mens room. I looked inside for a urinal, usually a good clue.

There was an excellent demonstration of how the continent of India collided with the continent of Asia and forced the Himal to pop up in between them. In geologic time this was a violent and fast collision. It only took 40 million years or so to form the mountains. It also explains to me why the Tibetans had conch shells to carve and to use for calling across valleys. The entirety of the Himal was under water in geologic pre history. I have passed on the carved conch shells when I see them, now I am considering buying one.

The museum paid due homage to Hillary, but hardly mentioned Mallory. To me, besides the tribute to the Yeti, the most memorable room was a display of the garbage brought back down of off Chomolungma. Climbing Chomolungma has become an industry now. Hundreds each year try and 100 or so summit. Every year. A Japanese climber who failed 3 times before he finally made it decided to spend the rest of his life raising funds and recruiting people to pick up the garbage left behind by the climbers. In the first season they took ten tons off the mountain.

Next stop was Davis falls. Like I said, this is a waterfall to nowhere. The water is simply swallowed up by the earth. This is a true class six rapid!

A very strong stream that just drops into the earth never to be seen again.

Lastly we went to a Tibetan refugee village where they are doing their industrious best. We bought three more rugs. Mary Ann tied a few knots in a rug,

Mary Ann ties a knot with a Tibetan woman.

They weave beautiful rugs like this

Leaving Pokhara, which is pronounced by combining the k and the h like a German would, we decided to take a 1 P.M. flight instead of driving back on the diesel highway. We loaded our guide on an early bus and went  to breakfast.

AT the café, we ran into a person Mary Ann had met the day before He is an American from Colorado who runs the Himalayan Healing center, basically a spa where she had a great massage. He originally came here as a Peace Corp volunteer. I will write his story for publication on other web sites. It is fascinating. He left the Peace Corp and came back to Nepal and now runs a healing center which trains women from the untouchable caste, to touch you all over. He was full of stories and I was sad to leave, but we had to catch our plane.

I am sitting with Mary Ann in the Pokhara airport restaurant. We were early, the flight is delayed. It is once again time to take it as it comes.

We are flying Buddha Air again. A Yeti Air plane just came and left. They have a cooler logo on the tail, a big Yeti footprint.

The Yeti needs to be commercialized more to increase tourism. Ah, maybe not.

The airport, while not exactly modern, is large and comfortable. The restaurant even has Diet Coke, not something you can find everywhere in Nepal. It costs twice what a regular coke costs, because it has to be imported, from the UAE of all places. They have last minute souvenirs available, we have no space for anything. When we get back to Sharjah I am considering turning our apartment into a souvenir store. We must have a thousand chaztkas (sp?) from everywhere from the Amazon to now the Himal. It is practically embarrassing. When we went out for coffee this morning we both said “we aint buying no more shit”. Wrong. Fridge magnets and coolies  (beer can holders) made from grass. JUNK, more JUNK.

“But it’s cool junk baby!”

“Where are we going to put it?”

“We can replace the Inca Sun God statue with it”

“No way!”

And so it goes.

Our flight left three hours late due to “technical difficulties”. That even makes me nervous. It was a ½ hour flight compared to a 7 hour bus ride. We really could not complain. Of course our driver was no longer at the airport, so we hired a taxi sponsored by the official tourist agency. The taxi was of indiscernible make, model age, or even color.  It was small. The driver had someone with him, and they argued with each other half the way back to the hotel. Then, the car just died. It died on a busy narrow street. Mary Ann and I sat there for about a half hour while they frantically tried things to get it started, with horns blasting at us. When the driver reached into his ash tray and pulled out a fuse and some bubble gum, we decided to just get out and flag down any cab. So I did. About then a traffic cop showed up and chased my cab away. He recruited a couple of locals to try to push our cab UP HIL to get it started. I flagged down another cab. The cop told him to move on. I was starting to get pissed off. Finally I convinced the cop that the cab I had was “no good, no go” and he let me flag down another.

We got back to our now familiar hotel and the desk clerk said “you late”. I was afraid he was going to say our room was gone, but when I looked at him and said “Airplane broke down, taxi broke down, room broke down too?” He laughed and gave us a nice room where we collapsed.

It is what it is.

That’s it for today folks. Thanks for reading and stay tuned for the Kama Sutra post. I would appreciate it if you make a quick comment so I know who still tolerates the intolerable neighbor and his dumb slide shows.

Up to My Temples in Temples

I have officially become a temple free zone. As I said in a previous post, our guide claims there are 1.3 billion gods in Hinduism. I think I have seen a temple for every one of them. They are all different, in a way, but after about a billion of them you really have to look hard to see the differences. They are all quite old. Most of them are very big and substantially built. By quite old I mean built in the 13th 14th, 16th centuries. Old.

They are everywhere. This one in town

Some defy description they are so beautiful

This is the tallest temple in all Nepal, supposedly

They are always surrounded by creatures, usually tigers guarding them

This one is guarded by a Cobra

This one is guarded by big scary guys with big mustaches. A previous life??

This one has Mary Ann for a guard. For a little while. The view of the courtyard from here was wonderful.

Some have courtyards with even more stuff to see indoors.

This is the royal bath inside a temple. The cobra heads where the water comes from are solid brass

This is the largest Stupa in the world. The way the Tibetans who built say it, it is the largest in the universe. They are optimistic people

I am declaring "Not One More Temple" Notice my hat? Whenever I wore this around the Nepalis pointed at me and said "Abu Nepali", Meaning Old Nepali man!

I could spend hours of my time and bore you silly with explanations of these temples, but I won’t. You can thank me later.

My favorite temple so far? Easy. The temple dedicated to the practice of the Kama Sutra. I keep teasing you that I will share my photos of all the “erotic” carvings carved into this temple. I just might hold out on you unless you ask me for it by commenting on this post.

The most impressive thing about each and every temple we have visited is that they are still in use. All the god statues have offerings around them. Everything from butter candles, to colored rice, to flowers rubbed onto them.

For instance. This shrine has been there for hundreds of years. It depicts the birth of Buddha. The legend is that when Buddha left the womb he immeadiatly walked five steps. See the steps? Anyway, just before I took this photo an old man was praying at it.

I’ll give you one more teaser for the next post. The god that started Kama Sutra has his own statue, and of course he is naked, and his impressive groin region is worshipped by rubbing flowers on it. I actually have a photo of a woman doing just that. So read my next post.

This country is about evenly split between Buddhists and Hindu. Always has been. Some of the temples have Buddhist stuff on top and Hindu on the bottom and some vice-versa. Because living in peace and harmony and accepting that things are just the way they are, they live together nicely.

Over 100 thousand Tibetan Buddhists escaped Tibet when the Chinese decided Tibet was really China. They destroyed temples and monasteries in an attempt to destroy the religion. Many came here, and many went to India. The one’s here have survived and thrived.

The only people causing trouble here are the Maoists. They have actually gone to war with the government and are still in the hills. You even see the hammer and sickle painted as graffiti and I took this shot in a city. I guess the phrase “godless commies” should be used here, eh?

Political freedom I guess.

The government of Nepal practically does not exist right now. They had an election a while back, but no one got a majority and they cannot name a President. No one seems to care. It is what it is.

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