Posts Tagged 'nepal'

Adventures in Corporate Teamwork

The other day, the company that I work for had an off-site corporate retreat. The sort of the thing that supposed to foster “team building” whatever that exactly means. The company (I’ll call Y) has little events like this seemingly every week. On the one hand there’s always free beer, and there’s never anything wrong with that. One the other, there’s a forced joviality that sort of creeps me out. It reminded me of going to pep rallies in high school. Part of me rejected them wholesale as groupthink idiocy while another far less verbal part felt vaguely jealous of my classmates who were utterly possessed with school spirit. They cheered, whooped and jumped up and down, utterly unselfconscious about how silly they looked or how artifiscial the event was. As with pretty much any social situation I attended in my late teens, I was more comfortable with scowling in the corner.

For the five months or so I’ve been working there there’s been two trivia nights, a karaoke night, cinqo de mayo celebration, bowling night, and a free Counting Crows concert. (I probably could have done without that last one.) But this retreat seemed different. First off, it was located way up in the hills between Malibu and Agoura Hills. Second, they strongly recommended that we wear old, loose fitting clothes. Third, there were numerous liability waiver forms to sign for the ambiguously described ‘ropes course.’ I started imagining of some brutal HR department culling program where we’d be dragged up a cliff face, given a bowie knife and three matches and told to fend for ourselves for a week. Those who survived got a 5% raise. Those who didn’t lost their jobs though their next of kin did receive a gift card for Jamba Juice.

We rolled in around 8 or so in the morning. The retreat’s coordinators were impossibly perky. They all had names like Kira, Sepulveda, and Oceana (“call me Osh”) and I surmised they listened to a lot of Jimmy Buffet. They quickly divided us into groups and forced us to do some mortifyingly cheesy exercises. I could handle the hand holding and group hugs, but publicly making an ass of your for the sake of group identity (20 of us doing the Travolta while singing “Do the Hustle”) almost had me hitchhiking home.

After that, they lead us to a field where I quickly figured out that “ropes course” was a euphemism for “tempting death and gravity.” There were a pair of telephone poles with a third intersecting the two to form an “H”. The horizontal beam was at least 25 feet in the air. The objective was to climb up one end and cross the beam to the other side. Meanwhile, your partner did the same from the other side. The trick was negotiating yourself around your partner without falling off. There were all kinds of ropes and harnesses that, in theory, would keep you from cracking your skull. In theory. My partner and I were fifth in line. The first four pairs met in the middle, spent a few minutes in a half embrace, their feet fumbling to get past, before one or both fell. While this was happening, I was getting suited up in a harness that seemed one part safety gear and one part fetish garment. I was strapped in five different ways across the back, under the shoulders and very very snugly through the crotch. When it was my turn, I took a couple deep breathes and started climbing, wondering why the hell I was doing this.

There was only one person who opted out. A punk chick in a huge black sun hat. I hadn’t seen her before but I knew that she was a kindred spirit. She and I no doubt would have be talking about cool music were this a pep rally. So why wasn’t I sitting this bit of foolishness out? Simple. I hate losing. That’s not the same as needing to win. I’m fine with coming in 6th place, so long as I’m not last. When I was living in Asia, I found myself eating all sorts of bizarre things (grasshoppers, snake blood, raw horse meat) for the same reason. My dinner companions inevitably liked to play ‘what will the foreigner eat,’ ordering the most exotic things on the menu. My rule was if my host ate the squid testicles then I would. I refused to lose. This same sort thinking got me naked and drunk in Russia and got me very nearly gored by a rhino in Nepal.

Climbing the pole was trickier than I thought because the little flange things were set irregularly, but that was nothing compared to when I got on the crossbeam. I realized that I was very high off the ground and the beam was very narrow and round. I stood there for a very very long moment gripping the pole behind me with white knuckles. I knew that the harness could supposedly support a Hyundai but that argument seemed awfully unconvincing when a couple million years of evolutionary impulses were telling me I was about to die. The reasonable thing to do would have been to climb back down and sit under a tree with a beer in hand, but instead I let go of the pole and started shuffling towards my partner with my arms splayed out either side of me. When we met in the middle, we grabbed and supported each other like a couple of drunks. We stood there in a modified tango pose for something like ten minutes trying to figure out how to get past one another. I tried to get one foot past her, then the other. Nothing worked. Then my partner got impatient and just went for it. I don’t remember what she actually did, it was a blur, but all of the sudden we were on the other side of each other. The crowd below us cheered but I didn’t feel the glory. I just wanted down. And that required us to jump. When “Waldo” the rope guy told me jump down, I retorted “Why the hell would I want to do something like that?” When I did, I fell about five feet before the harness caught, making it even more snug in the crotch.

I sent the rest of the day talking music with that punk chick under a tree with a beer in my hand. There was an opportunity to do another course — one that involved climbing up to the top of a forty foot telephone pole and then leaping to a trapeze — but I felt like I proved what I had to prove that day.

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 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:


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.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 4: How Jon Got His Groove Back or the Himalaya Shuffle

Three Nepali who asked for me to take their pictures.

You will all be happy to know that my intestinal tract no longer reacts like a spooked animal to food, though I must say I’m become much more paranoid about what I put in my mouth now.

Anyway, I’ve just returned from a short hike around the Kathmandu valley with the ever-perky “Mr. Nepal.” We left the smoggy haze of Kathmandu for Bhaktapur (where “The Little Buddha” was filmed) and began our hike for Nagakot which reputedly affords a spectacular view of the Himalayas, including Everest. Now, since I arrived in Nepal I had yet to see real dipped in the wool mountain. It being the tail end of the monsoon season, the Kathmandu valley was blanketed with a thick layer of clouds every day. I was beginning to think that the Himalayas were, in fact, an elaborate ruse devised by the tourist board.

Outside of Bhaktapur, Udhap (aka Mr. Nepal) asked a goat herder which was the best path to Nagakot since his favorite trail had been washed out from monsoonal rains. He lead us to one trail which probably was the fast route, because it went straight up the mountain. Panting and sweaty, we eventually stumbled onto the one and only paved road to Nagakot. We stopped by a food cart selling Fanta and coconut meat and checked our shoes and socks for leeches.

Like finding a wedding ring in your Ballpark frank, discovering a leech dangling from one of your appendages is one of life’s less pleasant experiences. Leeches are common in Nepal and India during the Monsoon and immediately after. They frequently hide in tall grass or they drop from trees. The earlobe, I heard is a favorite sucking ground. I always imagined leeches as looking like vampire slugs but, in fact,
having the privilege of looking at one up close as it worked its way up my shoe, they are actually quite small to begin with. Only until after they get a belly full of blood do they swell to slug sizes. I flicked a handful off my shoes, thinking that I had successfully thwarted the leech onslaught. It wasn’t until I reached the hotel and discovered that my sock was drenched in blood that I realized different.

Nagakot was a small village but it is slowly evolving into a tourist resort. A number of five star hotels have been built there, though during the off-season (e.g. during the monsoons) the place is empty. We stayed at a decidedly half star location called the Himalaya Resort. The room was carpeted in astro turf which didn’t hide the odd dead bug lying on the floor. The “resort” was perched right on a ridge that would have had a fantastic view. The clouds had rolled in though leaving the entire panorama white. Slowly though, as Udhap and the hotel’s owner beat each other in chess, the clouds parted revealing much of the valley below, yet they refused to show the Himalayas. “Don’t worry,” he said. “At dawn all will be clear.” That night, me being the only guest in the hotel, drank Nepali Rice spirits (think of sake and kerosene mixed) and looked at the valley in the moonlight. There was only a few light to be seen. I also learned that night that “Colorado” means “black penis” in Nepali.

When I groggily awoke, I discovered that it was of course that it was pissing down a cold hard rain. Hiking under such circumstances is risky at best, but since I left my fleece in Kathmandu, it was out of the question. So we caught a bus. It was pretty much what I imagined it would be like: toothless women with a pound of gold hanging from their noses clutching chickens to their laps; old men spitting out of the window; people hanging off the bus from the doors and roof. It was crowded, hot, and sweaty. As the bus snaked down the mountain road I oscillated from fits of terror to mere numbed detachment. The average Nepali road is as wide as an American driveway and full of every imaginable variety of vehicle, from rickshaw, to elaborately decorated truck, to scooters, to the odd Mercedes. The road is further clogged with pedestrians, cows, goats and anything else you can think of.

Back at Bhaktapur we changed buses for one bound for Dhulikhek on the highway to Tibet, which afford another alleged view of the Himalayas. We stayed at the Royal Inn Hotel which was booked full with a Nepali film crew who was shooting a movie there. That night Udhap and I played more chess with the director who was very, very drunk. Udhap and the other non-film stars had a very casual reaction to said stars. For example, Udhap once said referring to an youngish man sitting in the next table, “XXX is a good actor, but he hasn’t risen much in the business.” Then the man nods and says, “Yes, I haven’t risen much in the business.”

Before that though, I looked on the hotel’s roof deck to try to see the Himalayas. The rain had stopped but the clouds were still played peek-a-boo with the mountains.

I decided to walk about the village of Dhukilek. It was a charming place and aside from the odd Coca Cola advertisement probably looked much as it did three hundred years ago. No shops hawking email access or ten year olds hawking hash like in Kathmandu. I walked blithefully along, snapping pictures until I realized that my camera case had fallen off my camera. Backtracking I came upon a trio of women sitting on a towel in front of the local temple. She handed me my case, which apparently had dropped off right in front of them, but she also wanted me to take their pictures. She tried to communicate something else to me too but I couldn’t make out what it was. Soon a crowd developed around me and soon some guy who looked a lot like Bob Denver of Gillian’s Island fame translated in a circuitous manner. The women wanted me to send them the pictures. Ok, sure. Then they lead me to the local Hindu temple and asked, almost demanded, that I shoot them in front of a statue of Krishna. Soon my roll was spent and they eagerly wanted to know when they would get the photos. They gave me a remarkably vague address (behind the 3rd temple or something like that) and I beat a hasty retreat to the hotel.

At 5:30am the next day, today, Udhap beat on my door and said, “Hey Mountains!” Later that day, we climbed Dhulikhek “hill” which did give a jaw-dropping stunning, amazing view. At last.

Well, for the next three days I will be at Chitwan national park going on a safari. There I’ll see rhinos, barking deer (yes, that’s right, barking deer) and tigers in the wild. Then I’ll be gazing at Himalayas, and battling leeches on the Annapurna trail near Pokhara for a week.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 3: The Kathmandu Curse

During one of Kathmandu’s many power cuts, a frequent traveler to these parts–a tall, tattooed Rasta guy sporting a Dave Matthew’s T-Shirt, lectured us Nepal Newbies of the Kathmandu curse. I was sitting in the lobby of the hotel, huddled around a candle with my fellow travelers. Rasta guy leaned into the candle’s light and after a brief dramatic pause, he declared that everyone who visits Kathmandu gets sick within a week.

Ha, I thought. I had been vaccinated to my eyebrows and I had enough over-the-counter medicine to cripple a pack mule. That is until I was felled by a cheese sandwich. Previously I had eaten in little hole in the wall (literally) places where Nepalis actually ate. One place where I had some stunning lentil curry had no electricity but did have throngs of toothless women in saris. No problem. In another place, I had spicy milk tea in hang-out for Kathmandu’s thin blue line, which consisted of a guy with a camp stove boiling milk and selling chewing tobacco behind a run-down stupa. No sweat. But when I eat a bleedin’ cheese sandwich at a restaurant which featured a menu in three languages and proudly stated that they soaked all of their vegetables in iodined water, that’s when I find myself two hours later hurlin’ in the street.

That night I was plagued by images from the Indian movies I have seen (I’ve see one more film since my last missive, that one equally as bizarre). That weird sniveling villain, those oscillating busoms of the back-up singers danced before my fevered mind. But worst of all, one of the songs from said movies remained fixed in my head playing over and over and over and over.

The next morning, after swilling some Oral Rehydration Salts (the label cheerfully read: “For Diarreha or Cholera!”) I hobbled over to the Nepal International Clinic. The doctor, a Nepali who studied in Canada, listened to my tale of woe, poked at my stomach and then handed me a film canister and told me to provide a stool sample. Talk about performance anxiety. I sheepishly handed the receptionist my “sample,” and ten minutes later I was handed a pocketful of antibiotics.

Overall I’m slowly returning to 100% though that damned Indian tune is still in my head. I’ve spent most of my two days convelesence reading Lady Chatterly’s Lover (the only thing interesting at the local used book store). Tomorrow though, I’m planning on trekking around the Kathmandu valley.

Over and out.

Existential Panic World Tour Part 2: Kathmandu!

A movie poster in Kathmandu

Man, this country is nuts. Yesterday I was privileged to see a cobra charmer; a corpse ready for the funeral pyre; errant cows; weird holy men with painted faces, unkempt hair and loin clothes; Tibetan monks; women in saris and more stupas than you can shake a stick at, but I have yet to lay eyes on a single traffic light nor I’m glad to discover a McDonald’s. There are at least six or seven sites where the average tourist can log into the net within a block of here, but most streets here aren’t paved and I’ve seen more half naked crying children standing in rubbish heaps than I care to see.

I’ve been guided by a “college student” conveniently, or suspiciously named, Mr. Nepal. He has boundless energy and knowledge about Nepal and has a contagious smile. Yesterday, we went from one end of Kathmandu to the other seeing dozens of temple complexes, each more stunning than the next. By the end of the day, I simply wanted to sit in a quiet room and detox from sensory overload.

Today, it rained most of the day, so at my behest we went to see an Indian film. It started off as a standard Dirty Harry style rip-off, but quickly became a deeply weird film-going experience. The movie began with a montage of the chiseled-featured good guys where aviator glasses and the Indian flag. Yes, these lads were honest, virtuous, and had David Hasslehoff haircuts–all the things that India, apparently, looks to for a hero. The villain, conversely, was a Sherrif Lobo look-a-like hell-bent on doing everything that made India weak–corrupting officials, buying elections, killing, raping and of course wearing really tacky jewelry. The guy who played the villain, by the way, apparently was a devotee of the Eisenstein school of acting–I haven’t seen a more campy performance since Ivan the Terrible Part 2. Anyway, the leading good guy gets predictably suspended when he shoots a criminal in the groin (who bored a striking resemblance to G. Gordon Liddy). The crook/victim was running for office and his platform apparently entailed beating up orphans and circus performers. From there the plot splits into a dozen different directions. Will the other chiseled face good guy get the girl? Will the leading good guy get his job back and get another girl? Will the villain ever stop sniveling? To make matters more confusing, the “plot” will suddenly cease and an elaborate music and dance number will kick in. Out of nowhere a dozen backup dancers pop out of nowhere and begin shaking their busoms in a manner frighteningly reminiscent of Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” (That video scared me as a child.) In one sequence, the girlfriend starts singing on an isolated beach and out from a drainage pipe, I guess, comes the Benatar dozen. What really struck me about these sequences is that there is absolutely no coherence between one shot and the next. One moment girlfriend is rolling in the sand with her back-up, the next she’s in a completely different outfit embracing her beau. Is this an avant garde deconstruction of cinematic space? Is this some convention I’m unfamiliar with? Or is this simply really bad filmmaking? The film ends with the evil villain literally nailing the good guy to a cross and then setting it alight. For one spine-tingling moment I thought that the hero would actually snuff. According to the film, Jesus simply didn’t want it enough, because our hero managed to push over the cross, rips his impaled hands from the wood and proceeds to kick the shit out of seven or eight armed baddies. I was hoping they’d break into song at that point, but sadly they didn’t.

What was interesting about this film was the audience, who applauded when the hero suddenly saves an orphan from getting its head kicked in. I’m not sure if it’s a certain innocence from cliche at work or simply applauding is more a part of Nepali culture.

Over and out.

March 2023

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