Posts Tagged '1998'

Existential World Tour: the Complete Series!

Back in 1998, after I graduated from U of Michigan with a Master’s Degree in Japanese Studies that I knew would prove to be worthless, I panicked. I wanted to go back to Japan, but I really did not want to teach English again. I taught it for two years between 1994 and ’96 and I felt my brain softening a little more with each day I worked there. The few job leads that I had in Japan fell through and suddenly I had no clue what I was going to do with my life. The future looked confusing and uncertain and I was overwhelmed. So I did what any red-blooded lad hailing from the stout state of Ohio might: I sold my car and traveled around the world. Along the way, I wrote a series of mass emails detailing my adventures with included climbing Himalayas, getting chased by a Rhino and getting naked with a room full of Russians. I thought of them as a sort of proto-blog though blogs were at that point a good five years away. So now, ten years later, I finally have these missives in a blog format. You can read the first entry here.

I also have pictures from my Existential World Tour to Taiwan, Nepal, Russia, and Berlin.

Existential World Tour Part 13: Berlin and Back in Ann Arbor

Well, its the end of the road for me. I went West until it was East and I kept goin’ until I ended up back where I started. In short, I’m back in Ann Arbor, back with a vengeance.

I’ve been lying low in Prague for the past two weeks. I spent my time walking around, looking at Prague’s stunning, spooky and occasionally bizarre architecture, and of course drinking beer, which is literally cheaper than water and damn good to boot.

Last weekend, I went to Berlin. On Halloween night, I happened upon a bombed out (as in from WWII) department store that had been turned into a artist commune. The bottom floor was a disco and a welders studio, the second floor was a bar and movie theater (showing From Dusk till Dawn) and the rest of the building was either gallery space and/or other discos. The whole place was covered with graffiti art and the apocalyptic look of Blade Runner or a Duran Duran video. Across the courtyard in another bombed out building (there were lot in this neighbor of East Berlin, even though it was only blocks from Unter Den Linden and the Brandenburg gate) somebody placed a giant neon sign in puffy rainbow letters reading “Cry me a River.” I loved the place immediately. I started talking to some Anglo backpackers and soon we were doing Tequila shots. Later I found myself discussing Japanese film with a couple intense Belgians well into the morning. Anyway, I realized that after a liter and a half of beer and five shots of Tequila I felt stone sober. I think its time to go home now, I thought.

Soon checking into Betty Ford

Existential Panic World Tour Part 12: New Russians not Nude Russians

Howdy all, I’ve safety navigated myself out of Russia and now aside from some minor liver damage, I’m relaxing comfortably in Prague.

Current Russian joke: A guy walks into a bank and says to the teller, “Hello, I have $10,000 and I’m interested in opening an account. Who should I talk to about this?” The teller responds, “a psychiatrist.”

Anyhow, last week in our waning few days in Yoshkar-Ola, my mom threw a party for her friend and my banya-buddy Andrey. He invited many of Mari-El republic’s high-rollers and held the fest at Onar, the hoidiest toidiest joint in the region. The interior of Onar looked like a bottom rung casino from Ratpack-era Vegas. The walls were painted a ridiculous color of purple with frescos of obese cherubs painted in pastels on the ceiling. Elsewhere were bushels of fake ivy, stone wall covering and lots and lots of mirrors. Robert Ventura would have had a field day here. The place was clearly designed to impress, and hence has become a place known throughout the town as being a meeting place for a ecently emerging tribe of post-communists called “New Russians.”

Back in the Halcyon days of the early 90s, a New Russian was synonymous with ‘yuppie’–a newly affluent individual who wore Reeboks and Swatchs, drove foreign cars and enjoyed pizza. Now as Ruble drops like a stone, and as the prospect of simply getting a paycheck on time is becoming an increasingly rare occurrence here, the New Russians have been coded as if not out and out ‘mafia’ then the ugly rich. While several of the people my mother interviewed have not been paid in four or five months, apartment buildings are being thrown up along the river with enough garish opulence to embarrass a Romanov. One New Russian that we rented our apartment from (a really big apartment by Russian standards though without the Romanesque arches and onion domes of those newer models), was a short balding guy named Victor who bore a passing resemblance to Lenin. Though he’s a ‘sexologist’ (shudder) by trade, he seems to have number of side ventures which neither of us really wanted to know about. Last year when my mother was researching in Yoshkar-Ola, Victor offered her a plastic handgun. “For your protection’ he said. Another New Russian is a good friend of Andrey’s and one of my banya-comrades–a squat guy with a flat top and a Stalinesque mustache named Volodya, or as everyone calls him, Volodya the Sausage King, because, as his name would suggest, he made his fortune by stuffing ground pig parts into intestines.

At this fest, Comrade Sausage Czar was there along with his bitter, stricken-looking wife who spent the night drinking heavily and rebuffing her husband’s clumsy attempts at cuddling. Also there were a couple of other guys I had previously seen nekkid at the banya, and a number of teachers at the local university. The vodka flowed, the champaign was guzzled and the food just kept coming and coming and coming. Around 8 o’clock two guys and a synthesizer came out and struck up a tune. I was about to comment on how bad the music (it sounded like bad karaoke) when Andrey leaned over to me and said, “These musicians are good friends of mine. You like?” I nodded and held my tongue. At the end of the first set, the lead singer said (translated through Andrey) “And now a song dedicated to our new American friends.” He gesticulated vaguely at us and then began a really tinny version of Lionel Richie’s early 80s mega-hit “Hello.” Several older men with their suspiciously young spandex clad dates began slow dancing at the center of the hall. Later, after much more vodka and champaignski, the dancing girls came out clad in ostrich feathers, thongs and little else and gyrated.

Sadly, I had to miss much of this cultural performance, I had an appointment to go out dancing at another New Russian haunt called “Holiday.” My comrades-in-boogie were three of the five ex-pat Americans living in Mari-El: Donna, a very tall very blond English teacher; David, a garrulous lawyer also teaching there; and Jennifer, his astonishingly young blushing bride. David, in particular, has a murky mysterious past. Judging from what he told me in his long yarns about himself, he was at various points in his life–a film student, a bouncer, an army cadet, a tai-chi master, a CIA agent and worst of all, a lawyer. His Russian was, apparently, perfect. Upon arriving at the club, David directed my attention to the pair of armed guards standing at the door and noted that the nightsticks they were carrying had a hard plastic casing with a core of cork and a steel spring. “They’re leg-breakers, man,” he said with a certain lusty enthusiasm. He also reminded me that the club’s entry fee was equivalent to one fifth of the average workers monthly salary. (That is when and if they get paid.)

The club was relatively crowded, very smokey and decorated with a lot of chain-link fencing. The music was largely cheesy but cloyingly catchy Euro techno with the occasional Elton John song thrown in. Once they played the “Laura Palmer Theme” from Twin Peaks. Leather definitely seems to be the material of choice for women’s fashion–leather minis, tight leather pants, high leather boots. Most of the guys wore either leather jackets or ill-fitting suits. I danced some and drank a lot more. Again, Russia is a macho culture. If someone places a glass of vodka in your hands and says “Drink up friend,” you drink or suffer a reputation of being a wimp.

As the night wore on, some of the people from the Onar party drifted into the night club including Andrey, who looked completely out of his element. Though the man can drink Yeltsin under the table, he dances like the Twin Peaks’ dream dwarf. Volodya the Sausage King also showed up, but instead of his embittered wife, he was there with a blond balloon-breasted, er, companion who spent the evening sitting on his lap, giggling and playing with his mustache.

I staggered home around four thirty in the morning, with a group of Russians and Donna and I promptly crashed.

The next day, I managed to crawl out of bed and go to the market with my mom in spite of a killer headache. There I saw, in sharp contrast to decadence of the night before, an old woman with gnarled hands selling a half dozen beets spread out on a blanket on the sidewalk for the equivalent of a nickel. Further on I saw a guy in his 30s selling plastic sheeting. I was told that many factories are so far behind in their paychecks that they have started paying workers in the wares the factories produce. I was also told that the major bank in Yoshkar-Ola has frozen all accounts due to the instability of the Ruble. I really have no idea how the average Russian makes ends meet. I also wonder why there hasn’t yet been blood in the streets or what might happen in Russia’s increasingly murky future. When my mom asked one of the people she’s interviewing, someone who hasn’t been paid for six months, he shrugged said, “I am optimistic for the future, I have to be.” Meanwhile Victor, the plastic pistol packing sexologist is thinking about buying a flat at one of the new New Russian complexes for $200,000.

PS LATE BREAKING NEWS: It’s official. My global romp will be ending on Nov. 6. The tickets have been bought, and limo and dancing girls hired.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 11: Sweaty Naked Men

I’m realizing that this trip to Russia not really much of a tourist excursion. For one thing, there ain’t a whole lot to see here in the hinterland. Instead, this is an exercise in Russian cultural immersion. This became particularly evident on the car ride from Kazan to Yoshkar-Ola, when our burly contact here, Andrey, turned to me and asked in his thickly accented English if I’d ever been to a Russian Banya. “A Russian Barnyard?” I asked. A Banya is basically a sauna but its social significance is much more. The Banya is apparently one of the social lubricants that makes society flow. Like Japanese after-work drinking secession or the American tailgate party, it is a time when men are allowed to cast aside their societal roles and carouse like equals with their brethren.

When I mentioned to other Russians and the handful of American ex-pats living here that I was scheduled for such a banya, inevitability their reaction insinuated that I was really going to be in for something. On Monday, Andrey and a driver (Andrey refuses to learn to drive for some reason) picked me up, picked up an armful of alcohol, and then drove to a soccer field. The banya was a small wooden shack built on the edge of the grounds. Apparently, Andrey and a bunch of his buddies from Mari State University gather at this unremarkable hut and “relax.” Andrey pounded on the metal door for sometime before a squat naked man with a remarkably hairy back answered the door. Inside about a dozen middle-aged men were stripping naked, all of them looked like David Crosby or Wilfred Brimley. It was not a pretty sight. Andrey asked me if I wanted a beer before the sauna. I promptly said yes. After the beer and after I stripped, Andrey lead me to the sauna. Upon opening the door I was confronted with the sight of two naked very sweaty men flogging themselves with birch-branches. “It is kind of Russian massage” Andrey said to me. Ok, I thought. I sat in the sauna, allowed myself to slow cook in the intense heat of the room and followed suit with everyone else and began flogging myself with said foliage. (It feels like getting molested by a shrub.) The manly thing to do is to sit there swatting yourself until you have been so cooked your ears begin to curl. I was never quite that gung-ho. Then, with ears curled, the next thing you do to test your macho metal is to plunge into an icy cold pool of water in the next room. It’s kind of like daring your cardiovascular system to have a heart attack. Another variation is to leap, buck naked, into a snow drift and roll around while. Though it’s blasted cold out, there is, as of yet, nary a snow drift. So my banya-comrades made do with standing outside, naked, smoking cigarettes. We would sit around, make crude jokes, slap backs and make statements like “In Russia, men are men and women are women.” Yes, this was male bonding at its most raw and naked (literally). All that was absent was the drums and the Robert Bly books.

After continuing with the grueling sauna, ice water, exposure rotation, I was already feeling a bit buzzed. But no Russian adventure would be complete without the vodka. We all gathered around a buffet of sorts that a couple of the boys had set up. Handing me a glass of vodka (shots are for wimps) Andrey leaned over to me and said, “Russian proverb…After banya you can sell your pants but you must drink.” I asked him to repeat it, just to make sure I heard that right. I have no idea what this pearl of folk widsom actually means (especially considering no one in the room was wearing pants) but I took it as a subtle hint that I should be prepared for some serious drinking. After a toast, they knocked the entire contents of the glass back, as did I. Then another toast and another half glass. There was an impress array of food on the table before me, sauerkraut, bread, honey, olives and of course a big plate of lard. My banya-mates were somewhat perplexed why I wasn’t partaking in what they considered a staple food, but in my mind a line needed to be drawn. I would get naked, I would be happy to parboil and then freeze myself, and I’d be happy to suck down as excessive about of alcohol, but dammit I was not going to eat a chunk of lard. Moreover, seeing Andrey naked and hairy gnawing on a huge chunk of fat will be one of those traumatic images (if only on an aesethetic level) that will stay with me for a long, long time.

As weird as the experience was, though, I found myself actually having fun. And after two more half-glasses of vodka, I found that I was having a whiz-bang of a time. The final toast was to me, for being the sole intrepid American in this uniquely Russian experience. I counter-toasted them for making my banya-going something I won’t soon forget. And then I knocked back all the vodka in one gulp. Andrey said to me in a grave earnest tone, “you drink like a Russian.” I took that as a compliment.

Of course, after four glasses of vodka and three beers I wasn’t merely drunk, sloshed or plastered. I was out of my tiny head. When I arrived home, mom in true Russian tradition was making Borsch. She was also entertaining Donna, a very tall very blonde college student teaching English here and Shirley, the peevish wife of a missionary computer-programmer. (His life project is to make an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations. Yes, clearly what Russia need more than a viable political system, improved health care and a functional infrastructure is an electronic Bible in Russian with annotations.) I staggered into the kitchen, said something unintelligible I’m sure, and then promptly passed out in my bedroom. It wasn’t yet 6 O’clock at night. Later that night, Andrey called. When mom informed him that I was in a vodka coma, we replied with surprise saying, “But we didn’t drink that much.”

That night I felt like I had seen though the stereotypes to glimpse at the real Russia. And perhaps I saw more than I wanted to.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 10: Kazan

I’m in Yoshkar-ola in deepest darkest Russia. We took off for Russia from Frankfurt on Thursday. When we boarded our plane bound for Kazan, capital of Tartarstan, but were airily informed that the Kazan airport was mysteriously closed and that we might have to land in Perm at the base of the Ural mountains. That’s a bit like boarding a plane bound for Detroit and having it land in St. Louis. Fortunately, about 30 minutes before we did land we were told that the Kazan airport had re-opened. As we descended, my first impression of Russia was that it looked like a massive unrelenting expanse of Ohio. This place is crushingly, overwhelming flat. The horizon seems to exert a strange gravity upon the architecture which no matter how tall seems squat and insignificant in comparison with the flatness of the land.

We were met at Kazan by some one named Sveltlana. Through her job, my mother has made a number of connections throughout the country. Most feel a certain degree of obligation to her, after all, it was her job to recruit Russian scholars and once in Bowling Green Ohio acquaint them to American life by finding them an apartment, securing grant money etc. Thus Sveltlana, a kind, well-meaning but naive person, met us at the airport and arranged for us to stay at the home of a Russian family for the night.

Though the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Russia remains an empire of sorts. Within its vast expanses lies numerous “autonomous republics.” where specific ethnic groups reside. The most famous and troubled one is Chechnya. Fortunately, Tartarstan and the Mari-El Republic (where Yoshkar-Ola is) is less eager to spurn Russian control and start a bloody guerrilla war. Nonetheless, I found people, particularly in Tartarstan, were much more eager to identify themselves as Tartars than as Russians. The identification is with one’s ethnicity rather than with one’s nationality.

The next day we walked around the center of Kazan see the sights. Unfortunately, it were was a fierce wind along with some snow. Before I left the States, we packed several boxes full of winter clothes to Prague. The boxes, of course, did actually arrive until the day after my mother and I left for here. Fortunately I had enough sense to buy a $6 thick wool sweater in Nepal along with a $9 “North Face” jacket that was probably lovingly crafted by slave labor in Northern India. Kazan seemed to be in the midst of a building frenzy. Much of the construction seems to be directed towards undoing what the Soviets did, like reconstructing churches that were either actively destroyed by the Communists or through willful neglect. They are even reconstructing a large Mosque that was burned to the ground by Ivan the Terrible. I was somewhat disappointed with Kazan because a) most of the sights were in the process of reconstruction and b) in all of Tartarstan I saw nary a fishstick.

The next day, Andrey–mom’s primary contact here in Yoshka-Ola–picked us up in a shiny black Russia car, the kind you see KGB agents drive in the movies. To further the image, he was wearing a black leather trench coat. Andrey is a massive individual, with a thick ZZ Top style beard, a large gut and hands the size of hub caps. He looks like, if the situation required it, he could strangle a horse.

This afternoon I’m supposed to go to a Russia Banya with him as my mother continues her research. A Banya is a Russia spa, which I’m told entails lots of Vodka, birch branches, saunas and lots of nudity. Stay tuned…

Existential Panic World Tour Part 9: Off to Russia

This is going to be a regrettably short entry. In about six hours I’m heading off to airport for Russia and I haven’t really started packing. The primary object of this potentially wild and woolly trip is to aid my mother with her PhD dissertation research. Basically for carrying some bags and taking a few notes I get a free trip to exciting Russia. Of course, Russia seems to be getting more exciting by the day. The exchange rate there is fluctuating so rapidly that the State department is advising travelers not to change money into Rubles unless one plans make a purchase within the hour of the transaction. Moreover, a general nation wide strike is scheduled for October 7th. Yup, this is indeed going to be an interesting trip.

First we land in Kazan, the capital of Tartarstan, and stay there for two nights. Then Andrey, our burly contact, will meet us and drive us to Yoshkar-ola the capital of the Mari-El Republic (which is about 1000 miles north of Iran) where we will spend most of our time. Then on the 13th we’re off for Moscow on an 18 hour train. With luck, I’ll be back on the 16th to recount my experiences.

Anyhow, stay tuned.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 8: Prague-o-rama

Well, I’m in Prague. I must say former Eastern Bloc country or not, after Kathmandu this place seems positively luxurious.

I’m staying with my parents in the outside of the city, but near a metro station. Our landlord, a kindly guy with flamboyant facial hair named Mr. Rippl, took it upon himself to redecorate the place in a style befitting the new rapidly Westernizing Prague. He hired a decorator and spared no expense. The result is an odd combination between the cool modernist sensibility of Ikea and a bordello. The door is covered padded leather, there are at least ten large mirrors in this four room apartment, and there is more gold and pink in the master bedroom than in the Trump tower. Nonetheless, there is a TV with CNN and MTV, a shower with actual water pressure and a refrigerator filled with beer and there is nary a lentil in sight.

Our apartment is in a Le Corbusian soviet-style nightmare development. Soulless blocks of flats, each seemingly designed to outdo the next in sheer modernist brutality, extend into the horizon in almost every direction. The Czech have tried some half-hearted attempts at landscape design, but most seem to have weeded over. Nonetheless, there are no stinking mounds of garbage, no ill-tempered, leech-bitten cows wandering in the streets, no ten year-olds hawking hash nor are there any microcephalic children begging for change. Yup, it’s all very quiet here. Of course there are no snake charmers, Tibetan monks or Himalayas either. Can’t have everything.

Anyhow, I spent my final hours in Kathmandu doing some last minute shopping. I bought a sweater, a book on Yetis, and a handful of T-shirts. In virtually every shop they sold calenders with Buddhist imagery printed on handmade paper. I debated buying one but then thought better of it. I left for Kathmandu airport (among one of the most dangerous in the world because the country’s too damned poor to afford radar) on a cab blasting Elton John’s “Goodbye English Rose.” It was an oddly melodramatic moment. I spent several hours languishing in the absolute chaos of the Dehli airport until I boarded my Austrian Air flight. There everything was jarringly clean and orderly. Oopah music was wafting over the PA and the stewardess in their smart fraulein outfits offered everyone bread, cheese and a drink of their choice. I arrived in Prague after about 12 hours total traveling time and with little in the way of a good night’s sleep. I deposited my bags and headed into town. As I sauntered among the beerhalls, the gingerbread architecture, the Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonalds, and the legions of tourists, I happened upon a small boutique that specialized in Asian knick-knacks. There hanging next
to a pile of Tibetan incense was the EXACT same calendar with the Buddhist imagery that I almost bought in Kathmandu. Suddenly, my lack of sleep caught with me. For one terrifying moment I really wasn’t sure where the hell I was. Was I Nepal? Czechland? Ann Arbor? Fortunately, at that instance my mom slapped me on my back and said, “Let’s go get a beer.” I complied. I needed one.

Anyway, on Thursday I’m off for deepest darkest Russia, which should prove to be at least as wild and woolly as my Nepal escapades.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 7: Annapurna-a-go-go

Well, its my last night in Kathmandu, and what did I do? Look at some sites of cultural significance? Regal my fellow travelers with bawdy tales? No, I watched in rapt disgust as Clinton tried to parse what sexual relations meant on CNN (Clinton’s Nob Network). The crowds of Europeans watched and cackled at this stupid spectacle that only America could produce. The Americans muttered, shook their heads and skulked away. I’m looking into Canadian citizenship.

Anyway, back to my story…

I arrived in Pokhara and checked into my pre-arranged hotel wedged between a newly opened Benetton and a shack selling counterfeit North Face gear. Soon afterwards my guide Kamal (he took pains to emphasize that his name was pronounced ‘kaMAL’ and not ‘camel’). He was a quiet easy-going sort who resembled Jim Varney (the star of the dreaded Ernest series) with a gap-toothed grin. We talked some about my hiking equipment and arranged a starting time for the next day.

Trekking has become a major industry in Nepal. In Thamel, the tourist ghetto of Kathmandu, virtually every shop that isn’t selling embroidered T-shirts offers trekking services–and that doesn’t mention the countless number of freelance guides hawking their services in the streets. The two most popular trekking routes are the Everest Base Camp trek and the Annapurna Circuit near Pokhara. The draw of the former is obvious–Everest, the roof of the world, the tallest mountain on the planet. The Annapurna Circuit also boasts some significant peaks but its also includes a rich variety of cultural attraction–particularly sites like Mukitinath which is a major temple for Tibetan Buddhism. The other draw of the Annapurna route is sheer logistics. The Everest trek takes at least three week and requires either a long bumpy bus ride or an expensive and potentially dangerous helicopter ride to the trailhead. The amount of time required for the Annapurna region is much more flexible (treks can be two days or two months) and one only needs a short cab ride to get trekking. Because of that blighted cheese sandwich and general indecision I had only about a week to kill. Thus Annapurna.

The plan was to spend six days hiking from scenic mountain village Dampus to scenic mountain village Ghandruk then over a ridge and down to scenic mountain village Ghorepani. After a brief hike up scenic vista site Poon hill its then literally down hill to Pokhara.

The first day was absolutely lovely. Terraced rice fields, quaint stone houses, snow capped mountains, women in traditional garb hauling baskets of grain up and down the mountain. The scene was so idyllic that, like my visit to Beijing some years back, I had remind myself that this was real and that the setting wasn’t some diabolical Disney recreation of a scenic mountain village. As with Chitwan, the tourist literature played up the exoticness of the setting. See a ‘real Nepali village.’ Of course I had other reservations about how ‘real’ the experience was. Each village seemed more a loose collection of guest houses than anything else. Moreover, the government–apparently fearing injury to the trekking business if legions of tourists keeled over from food poisoning–standardized guest house menus and licensed their cooks. Thus on top of the ubiquitous Nepali rice and lentil combo Dhal Bhat, every menu also had spaghetti, pizza, apple pie and for some reason Tibetan cuisine (ah, but I will discuss this more later). True enough, the valleys and mountains did seem to support a viable rural economy, and true traditional cultures and beliefs seemed to maintain an upper-hand over the encroaching 20th century and true there was nary a motorized vehicle nor paved road for miles of most of these scenic villages. (Trade and commerce was carried out by either mule caravan or by stout legged porters have the agility of mountain goats.) But it was also true that when the government threatened to build roads to some of the larger communities, the villagers loudly protested, arguing that such a construction would kill the tourist industry. It’s a fine line between cultural self-consciousness and simulacrum. Nonetheless the first day was lovely.

On the second day, however, things started getting tough. Indeed, I wasn’t tramping around any old mountain range…I was hiking the Himalayas. After a pleasant, leisurely six hour hike, the trail abruptly descends into a deep deep gorge. Without exaggerating the trail descended roughly 800 vertical meters almost straight down on loose, uneven and slippery steps. Having grown up in the flatlands of America, my mountain descending muscles were woefully underdeveloped, especially with the added weight of a 10 kilo pack (I don’t know why I decided to bring my espresso maker). Top-heavy as I was, waves of vertigo washed over me as did torrents of sweat. Few things focus the mind and hone the senses like the prospect of plunging head-long off a Himalaya. At the bottom of the gorge, sweaty and my legs feeling weak and rubbery, I was leaning up against a rock when Kamal, my gap-tooth guide, cheerfully informed me that the day’s final destination was perched on the opposite side of the valley about a kilometer up. Needless to say I crawled into town barely ambulatory–more physically exhausted than I have been since the day I struck a sheep with my bike (but that’s another story). Fortunately, our guest house–the Sakura Inn–had a hot solar powered shower and good food. After cleansing myself and devouring some Tibetan momo my diminished spirits were restored some.

The following day was supposed to be easy but the monsoon season was a real bitch these parts and much of the usually well-tended trails were washed away. Much of that day and the next was spent stumbling through rock slides and mud slips.

On the fourth day, we arrived at Ghorepani (literal translation–‘horse water’) just after noon so I spent much of the day reading, playing cards with a boisterous couple from Hong Kong and wandering about the town. At one point, I poked my head into what I thought was my guest house’s shop, but instead turned out to be the owner’s private quarters. There in a starkly decorated room (only a single yellowed poster of an Indian movie star adorned the walls) I saw my guide, two turbaned old women with gnarled hands and large gold nose rings and a pair of half naked children sitting around a Sony entertainment system watching a Chinese bootleg of Titanic.

Mind you, this was a village that was miles away from any road, had only intermittent electricity, and only one (broken) phone. The copy was terrible and I’d already seen the flick too many times, nevertheless I sat next to Kamal and absorbed the weirdness of the moment. Was this merely a rude insertion of the 20th century in a place that has otherwise not changed in generations? Or was this in fact be some Nepali Disneyland and I had stumbled into some canteen for actors on break from playing quaint villagers? Was this some bizarre ruse or merely the dizzying clash of cultures that are worlds apart? Kamal, for one, was suspiciously tight-lipped about the whole thing. (He was, however, impressed with Titanic, though he seemed more moved by was Kate Winslet’s nudity than the flick’s much ballyhooed special effects. Indian cinema may shove a dizzying array of genres into one movie but they are notoriously prudish.)

The next morning we woke before dawn and climbed Poon Hill–one of the best vantage points in Nepal to see the Himalayas. “Poon Hill” is actually a few meters shy of being the same altitude as Mount Fuji. Mountains don’t get much respect around here unless they’re in the ballpark of 7000 meters. (For comparison, Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak is a mere 6200m) The view was positively sublime. There the sixth and tenth highest peaks in the world tower before you. Like many things on this trip, this defies easy description outside from the over-used, and thus meaningless, words like “stunning”, “awesome” and “overwhelming.” But indeed I was stunned, left in awe and overwhelmed.

Two days later, I boarded the first motorized vehicle I had seen in two days and checked into another motel in Pokhara. In an effort to reacquaint myself with the world, I thumbed through a Time magazine–the Starr report issue. My first reaction was to hop on another cab, head for the hills and not come down until this whole miserable affair is over. “Real” or not, Annapurna proved to be much more enjoyable and less deadening than the show playing currently on TVs around the world.

Next stop, Prague. I’m not sure about the internet situation there.
Stay tuned.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 6: Stripping for rhinos

I’m back in the noise and the stench of Kathmandu. I found that ten days worth of rotting garbage has accumulated a block from my hotel giving the whole neighbor some added ‘atmosphere.’ The garbage men are apparently on strike.

Anyway, about nine days ago I boarded a tourist mini-van bound for Chitwan a massive national park that boasts a sundry of wildlife including rhinos, sloth-bears, crocodiles and allegedly tigers. The park is located on Nepal’s southern boarder where the Himalayas level into the Indian plain. Tour agencies around Nepal advertise jungle safaris into said park and enthusiastically play up all the cliches associated with “the jungle.” Lodges with names like ‘Tiger tops’, ‘Wild Safari’ and ‘Tarzan hotel’ are seen repeatedly in the tourist literature. So with the theme song of Raiders of the Lost Ark playing in my head, and a massive can of bug repellent in my bag I ventured out of Kathmandu valley and onto the open road.

Unfortunately, it soon became apparent that the ‘open road’ was in fact closed due to a massive landslide. The population of the bus waited for about three hours at a truck stop. I ate a suspicious-looking omelette as I listened to a lantern-jawed Brit, Steve, and an Argentine who looked like Chris Farley rant about how terrible India was. We mused on whether Indiana Jones ever has troubles with landslides or indeed explaining the concept of travelers checks to a particularly dense bank teller, having flight delays or even getting a bad case of the shits from a cheese sandwich. As the hours drew on Steve the Brit grew impatient and lead a revolt against the bus driver. The driver wanted to hang out at the truck stop with his buddies. We, having met a number of people who have been waylaid at the truck stop for several days, wanted be driven to the sight of the landslide and fend for ourselves.

Since this was the only paved road that connected the East part of Nepal with the West, the crowd of buses, trucks and people stretched for at least 4 kilometers. The landslide itself was feverishly being worked on by four guys with two gas-powered back-hoes. One person operated the machine while the other doused the engine with water to keep it from overheating. After an hour, the road was clear enough to allow pedestrian traffic to pass. There was still a good sized pile of earth there though and there was ever the possibility that one of many large rocks could come down and brain some witless by-stander. Nonetheless, two days worth of foot traffic was determined to get through, including myself and Steve, the lanterned-jawed Brit. The clamor and crush of humanity recalled WWII documentaries of Chinese peasants fleeing their villages. People carrying huge bags pushing and shoving their way through. Later, after walking for about 10 km, we got a ride on a local bus that had the misfortune of getting not one but two successive flat tires. All told, it took 14 hours to get to a place that was supposed to take 5. Other people I met later had an even more harrowing time of it. One Japanese guy I met said he rafted down a river that paralleled the main road and then hitched a ride on top of a gas truck.

The next day, the first activity of the package was the jungle walk. Soon after we boarded hollowed out canoes across a river that demarcated the park’s boundary, the guide gathered us at the river’s bank and said in a tense whisper, “What I’m going to tell you could save your life.” He ran down the different methods needed to evade an attack by one of the park’s many large scary creatures.

If a rhino charges, one is to:

a) climb a tree

b) if that’s impossible run circles around a tree

c) if there are no trees run in zig-zags

and d) if all else fails strip.

Rhinos have terrible eyesight but an excellent sense of smell. The scent of one’s inevitably sweat-drenched shirt, pants or whatever might just confuse the Rhino into attacking the garment. With the Tiger, one simply stares into the Tiger’s eyes and walks away slowly. An inopportune sneeze basically will make you lunch. As he was saying this, I noticed that the only weapon he had was a smallish bamboo pole. Nary a stun-gun, dart-gun, pepper-stray can, cattle-prod, or lawn dart to be had. Just the pole.

More fun Rhino facts:

1) The African Rhino has two horns, the Asian has one.

2) They always deficate in the same location.

3) Mating for the rhino last 3 to 4 hours. During that time the female continues to walk about and graze as the male is, um, riding along.

Much of the hike was spent either walking through ankle deep mud or dashing into bushes. We saw a number of monkeys, some hog-deer, a rare bird that I’ve never heard of, and tiger tracks. But up until the last hour of the hike I saw nothing that would justify the images of Indiana Jones in my head. Until the guide signaled us to be quiet as we crawled towards a large hulking form that he said was a rhino. As I crept closer, I had one foot pointed in the opposite direction and I was ready to run zig-zags, strip or flap my arms and sing “The Yellow Rose of Texas” if the situation required it. The rhino did charge but fortunately in the opposite direction.

Next activity was the elephant ride, which was much more pleasant. Four of us climbed the great creatures and off we went galoomphing along. The ride was quite pleasant. There is no natural animosity between rhinos and elephants so we sauntered right up to several without the traumatic stress of the jungle walk. We tramped through the high amber grass of the park and the scene looked almost African. Rhinos grazing, exotically shaped trees, and mud huts in the distance. Beautiful. The cadence of the elephant’s stride, though does leaves one feeling a bit like the victim of a bad chiropractor, however.

Anyway, the next day, I boarded another bus for Pokhara where I was to begin my trek. Stay tuned…

Existential Panic World Tour Part 5: The News In Brief

I’m back from my six day trek around the Annapurnas. My legs are so sore that I’m hobbling around like Captain Ahab and my clothes smell like a Taiwanese nightmarket but somehow I survived. I’ll write all about it once I get to a web server that isn’t run by a bunch of mouth-breathing weasels as this one in the resort town of Pokhara is. I’ll be back in Kathmandu in a couple days where I will recount my adventures with rhinos, vertigo and bootleg videos. However, I have culled an actual article from the September 8th issue of the Kathmandu Post to whet your appetites. I did not make this up:

YAK BLOOD CARNIVAL ENDS

MUSTANG, Sept 7 (RSS)–An annual carnival of drinking yak blood, unique to Marche and Muli villages in this district, concluded here recently with the participation of 20,000 carnivalists.

On the occasion, the carnivalists from Baglung, Myagdi and Mustang districts participated in the rituals in which about 500 yaks were slaughtered.

There is a popular belief here that drinking yak blood is a remedy for gastrique, blood pressure and gastric diseases and many other diseases.

However, it is felt that health [sic] of the yak should be checked properly before they are consigned to the rituals; for drinking the blood of an unhealthy yak may transmit various diseases to humans.

Words of widsom indeed.


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