Thursday, August 23, 2007

At last, the last of the pictures...

Obviously, having taken over 1200 pictures, this is not going to be all the pictures I took, just the ones that I thought were halfway decent. Now that I am back in the States, with a fast reliable internet connection, this is much easier. But don't forget to keep up with the daughter's blog, since she is in Nepal until the end of December!

The daughter feeding a pony at a lunch stop

A line of yak butter candles at a tibetan monastary

A line of prayer wheels in Tibet

I have no idea what is inside the "Bathroom of Clean Water" (or "Crean water" as the sign on the side reads)

The highest point we reached in Tibet - a little over 5000 meters

A stupa in Nepal

A view from up the stupa

A Cornell sticker on a car in Tibet

The Daughter and Me

Prayer wheels on a building in Tibet

Peacock window in Bahktapur

More stupa views

Communist Party HQ in Kathmandu

A snack for sale at the Naag festival (no, I didn't eat one. I was stuffed from snails at breakfast)

Saddhu with snake at the Naag festival

Everest from the plane ride back from Lhasa

Potala palace at night


Worshippers at a monastary and other shots from the monastary

Juniper smoke at a monstary

Simone and Kristen taking pictures

Buddha picture on boulders above monastary

20 yuan to take interior pictures

Tibetan boy sheparding sheep

The daughter, Simone, myself and Kristen on the bus to Lhasa

On the road to Lhasa

Our driver in Tibet

Solar stove to heat water for tea

Prayer wheels, big and small

On a mound of sacred stones behind a stupa in Tibet

Well, that's all I have to show and tell about my big adventure. I hope to return one day to Nepal to do some trekking and some more shopping. Of the three countries I visited, it was my favorite, although I made many new and interesting friends in Tibet as well. I hope you have enjoyed travelling with me!

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Some final thoughts on travelling

I will be leaving soon to return to America, land of drinkable water, ice cubes, fresh fruits and vegetables that don't threaten to poison you, Diet Coke, and decent pizza. As I do so, I have jotted down some of the ideas that have occurred to me in the last few days, and before I begin the several days of airplane travel that will bring great joy and relief to my dog (and hopefully my wife and daughter #2, though I suspect the dog's greeting will be more overwhelming initially), I thought I would share my thoughts:

What to pack:
-It is possible to travel with only two sets of pants, shirts, socks, and underwear if one washes them out each day in the sink. Shirts can be reduced to one if one adopts the “been there, seen that, bought the t-shirt” mentality.
-A pair of hiking boots and a pair of sandal will cover most of the bases as far as footwear. The sandals are critical for showers in dorm-like settings, or anywhere near a bathroom in Tibet. Even better would be class IV biohazard suit.
-A travel pillow is a plus, especially for dicey hotels and long car trips. A sleeping bag is less critical unless one is trekking. Choosing companions who don't snore also helps with sleep.
-A small calculator would have been very helpful, especially when going from country to country and trying figure out quickly whether 600 ruppee is good deal for a burger(no), or 20 yuan for a t-shirt (yes) , or god forbid some number that does not divide easily into the conversion rate!
-A small umbrella would have been useful to deal with sun beating down, more so than the rain jackets, given that we had very little rainfall most of the days, despite monsoon season. Maybe my friend "Mary Poppins" (you know who you are...) had it right.
-A “Murse” (man-purse) is also handy for keeping the guide books, notebooks, leisure reading, a pen, etc. No wonder women carry those things. But it is critical that it not look like a purse, or you will question for masculinity (obviously this one only applies to men). I got mine at Cabella's, known more for manly products like guns and hunting equipment.
-A decent camera lens is critical to enjoying the photographic experience. A crappy lens is even more obvious when others can zoom in to capture great shots of people surreptitiously, while your own shots look like distant specks. Plus crappy lenses have a suicidal impulse that makes them fall more easily to the ground. They know how utterly worthless they are.
-US Dollars are easier to convert than Travelers Checks, especially in dinky third world towns. Always have a supply of 20’s. I kept a few in my shoes.
-When traveling in Tibet or China, it is definitely BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper!)
-Second hand books are best for traveling. They are cheap enough that if the book is trash, you can just leave it behind for someone else to “enjoy”; and if they are good, they make great gifts for travel companions met on the road. I suppose they can also double for toilet paper in Tibet, since there is nothing to clog up when you poop into a drainage ditch doubling as a toilet.
-Noise cancelling headphones are the way to go for noisy planes, bumpy cars, or generally ignoring your children.
-Bottled water is a very silly idea in the US, but critical in Asia.
-Pocket sized purell means less worry about germs at meals. Always borrow from your travelling companions.
-If you play an instrument, bring it or you will wish you had. Does not apply to bagipes, accordians or tubas.
-A photojournalist vest allows you to carry on more things on the plane. It also makes you look extremely dorky. It's your call.

Some Cultural Observations:
-Keeping only as much cash as you would spend on something in your wallet allows you to bargain down more easily. When you can open up the wallet and say "That's all I have", you'd be surprised how often that helps drop the price where you want it to be. Also walking away drops the price. I wondered how far I would have to go to get the vendor to pay me to take the item!
-English is the universal language, except where it's not. Apparently China and South America have yet to see the light.
-Thailand is full of wily strangers. Always bargain down, or walk away. This does not work in the US, for people who travel from Asia to the US.
-Communism breeds paranoia. I still don't know if I was being scrutinized, but the fear that I was worked well enough.
-Learn to ignore beggars. Start by ignorimg your dog mooching at the table, then move up to ignoring your kids. Remember, all they all want is something you have.
-Apparently Lonely Planet guides are required by all world travellers. This does not mean it is always accurate, just that you are apparently required to have the requisite country guide with you.
-The "european style" of lunches and dinners (two or three hours at a clip) does wonders for building relationships and killing time when stuck in dinky towns with nothing left to do.
-Apparently ever dinky town in every dinky country has an internet cafe. There's no reason to not tell your mother you are safe. You know how she worries about you.
-If you decide not to shave your beard, you should at least trim it when the barbers keep urging you into their shops for a shave. I was going to limit this suggestion to the men, but I realize that there may be some women with hormone issues as well.
-In Thailand, the taxi driver wants your money. He will refuse to turn on the meter. There is little you can do if you want to get back to the hotel. Deal with it.
-The Chinese LOVE porn. Lhasa is no place for young children.
-Hindus don't eat cows because they are sacred. When they see that Muslims don't eat pigs, they assume it is for the same reason. Cultural blinders cause people to see things in limited ways. Remove yours and don't assume that the actions you observe in others is due to the reasons it would be for you.
-In Nepal, the women dress in the traditional salwaar kameez and scarf. Western women can fit in more easily by doing the same. However, if a man tries to wear tradional clothing he will stand out, since the men wear shabby western style clothes. Imagine a Nepali man trying to fit in while in America by wearing a tuxedo with top hat and cane. Just does not work!
-The words "Coca Cola" are universally understood. You can always get a Coke.

The Proper Attitude for Travel:
-Even if you don't get to interact with local people, if your group tour has a variety of countries represented, you can still learn about other cultures.
-When you make your travel video, be prolific. (Thanks to Simone, from whom I stole the idea)
-Maintain a sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. Don't worry if they have different ideas about hygiene, appropriate types plants and animals for foods, basic safety measures, etc. If there's no risk, there's no adventure!
-If you feel you got "ripped off", remember you decided to pay the agreed upon price. Besides, odds are it is a very small sum of money for you, very big sum for them. It's like gambling - don't put up more than you are willing to lose.
-When it comes to souveniers, just buy a bunch of stuff. You can sort it out later as to who gets what. Don't you have friends to take this stuff off your hands?
-Remember you are a tourist. If you travel to country where the people do not look like you, you are obviously a tourist. Embrace your nature. Take pictures, look lost, and don't think you are too cool to be a tourist. But don't be a jerk either.
-If you travel with your father, you will save money on food, housing, entertainment, etc. If you travel with your daughter, you will lose money on food, housing, entertainment. If you are lucky, neither one of you will want to kill the other too often.
-Maintain your sense of humor. First of all, you will need it. Second, people will enjoy being with you more if you are joking and smiling instead of bitching and whining. Remember that every bad thing that happens makes for a better story. For example, which story would you rather tell your friends: "We got to the border, they checked our passports and visas, and off we went"; or "We got to the border of Communist China. They held our passports and we waited in the rain for 2 days to get into the country. We were crowded 6 to a room. The bathrooms were holes in the floor. They kept taking our passports back, and we never knew what was going to happen next. It was like something out of "Midnight Run"?

Two final suggestions if you have enjoyed my blog:

First, if you don't have one, order your passport today. Even if you don't have a trip planned, it's a lot easier to go if the passport is in hand

Second, if you have enjoyed my musings, leave me a comment. If you haven't enjoyed them, why are you still reading them?

PS - I will be posting more pictures when I get back Stateside and can go through the 1200 or so shots to get the best. I'll either post them here or on webshots.

Wait, did I get scammed or did I do the scam?

When we returned to Kathmandu, I went out to finish my shopping for gifts. I had already made friends with Afza and then through him another shopkeeper (let’s call him Pappu) who turned out to have been in movies (Kali-wood; the Nepali version of Bollywood). As I went past the shop, I met with HIS brother Vino, who told me how Pappu was not only a jeweler but also an ophthalmologist; and Vino a lawyer. They came to work in their grandfather’s jewelry shop at the request of the father. After some tea, and general declarations of brotherhood and friendship, I looked at some statues that I had been eyeing. Basically the one I wanted was a Hindi version of the Venus DeMilo. There were two statues, one in better shape and slightly larger and more expensive. I decided to get this one, and after some calls of brotherhood, Vino decided to throw in the other one as well. Then he told me he wanted me to pick out something for my wife as a gift from him to his new sister-in-law! So I’m pretty much making out like a bandit, right?

Well, one of the few con games played in Nepal is a gem scam, where they ask to you buy some stones (which later turn out to be pretty worthless) to take home and resell for them to a designated buyer (who does not exist). Pappu “happens” to come back to the store with a couple of aquamarines (or so they say, but I have no idea about gemstones) and they ask if I will buy them, bring them to the states, and then when Pappu comes to the States in a few weeks, he can buy them back and they can avoid the import charges. I eventually convince them that I can’t do this, the money to lay out is too much. Meanwhile, Vino’s son has been wrapping up the statues which I have yet to pay for. Now it is a bit more money than I have on hand, so I go back to the hotel to get my credit card. They don’t have a machine, but we decide to go to the bank. Pappu and his nephew get in the cab with me, and I have some momentary anxiety about what will happen as I am now in the car with three strangers going who knows where, in a country where I don’t speak the native language. However, as we start to leave Thamel, Pappu says he is pretty sure that the American Express card I have won’t work, and can I pay any other way? (Cue ominous theme music – maybe I should have picked up some ransom insurance before I left?) . I offer to leave the statues and wire the money to the daughter, so she can pay and then pick up the statues later in the week. “What about traveler’s checks?” he asks. I have about a quarter of the agreed upon price in travelers checks. “Great” he says. Since we are brothers now, he trusts me to wire the rest and we head back to the store. I write out the travelers checks, and take the statues with me.

So in the end, I leave with 2 statues, having paid a quarter of the agreed upon selling price for one, with only the promise to send the rest. They don’t know my name, my address, or anything. So, did they scam me or did I scam them?

Goodbye to Tibet

So have finally left the land of the squat toilet and BYOTP. Before we left, we all posed for group shots - one set of the boys and one of the girls. So before I return to the action (so to speak) of Nepal, I thought I would introduce the group that made the week in Tibet so much fun. Overall, I got to know some people fairly well (spending 4-8 hours everyday for a week together in a car helps); some I got to know only over a few meals, and others I wish I had more time to learn about. But I suppose that's the nature of a group trip.

Here are the women:

(from left to right, top row to bottom:
Michela, from Italy, who is an endocrinologist traveling with Alessandro; Lola from Spain, travelling solo, the woman from South Korea who was very quiet and whose name I forgot, but I am sure someone will either e-mail me or post on the comments her name; Daughter #1; Yolanda who is traveling from Spain with her sister Rosa-next to last in the row-Kristen, a statuesque woman originally from NYC, who proves that even when you move to sunny california you still talk fast, but who was always smiling and great fun to be around, and who was in the Navy for 5 years, then worked for an NGO called the Himalaya Foundation, but is going to be going back to school for a business degree, and who is a also now an amatuer photographer; Charlie from Cornwall in the UK traveling with her boyfriend Rob, who have been away from home for the past 21 months, originally intending to work in Australia, but after a year, Rob disliked the company and Charlie had trouble with the visa working out, so they decided to sell everything and tour New Zealand and Asia, but they will probably be home in the next few months; Loes from Holland who is working at a Buddhist monastary
in Nepal as a teacher, and who also had a great sense of humor (as did pretty much everyone actually), and was always great fun to be around; Rosa travelling with Yolanda; and Kristina from Germany traveling with her boyfriend Jan, who I did not get to know very well, but they seemed to be very nice as well)

And the men:

(Rob, travelling with Charlie, who was from England and wanted to declare war on Finland when the restaurant gave half his beer away to on of the Finns travelling with us and who had a great sense of humor; Tommi from Finland who has been travelling for around a year and was joined part way through by his long term friend Miika (unless I've mixed up the names and the stories), who along with Miika told me (as they polished off their second giant bottle of beer at lunch one day) that for some reason the Swedes think the Finns are all alcoholics, which is probably true, especially when the Swedes beat the Finns at ice hockey by 5-3 even though at the start of the third quarter the score was 3-0 Finland; Miika (unless it's Tommi);me; Tom from Germany who is riding his recumbent bike around the world more or less, having already ridden from Alaska to southern California, and now is riding from Germany into Africa, up through India and Nepal, but he joined us because the roads are impassable until Lhasa, but next is Beijing then Japan,so obviously since he puts on 80-100 km (about 40-60 miles) a day he can eat anything and stay stick thin, so we all fed him any leftovers we had at most meals, and was a soft spoken but very nice guy, and in great shape obviously since he also had no symptoms ever of mountain sickness so I think he is the only one (except maybe from Tony?); Alessandra from Italy travelling with Michela; Simone also from Italy who has very good English and would easily pick up any American girls he wanted just by speaking with his accent, and even if he called them big dumb cows with stinky feet in Italian they would be won over, who is also a published author as well as an artist and photographer, who is working with the family vending machine business in Milan, and has a great and generous spirit, and who shared political and cultural ideas with me and Kristen (not to mention Daughter #1 and Tony during the long car rides, and whom I shall have to go to Italy to visit with the wife since she won't go places with endemic malaria but I am pretty sure Italy is OK but it will have to be after my dog dies since he (the dog) has been pretty nuts from what the wife says while I've been away, and he (the dog again) is already nutty to start with so it must have been really bad (and if he - Simone- has any trouble with any of the words I use he - Simone- should send me a quick e-mail so I can clarify; Tony from Singapore, who had a dream about someone sending him a postcard from Lhasa, so he decided to come on this trip, even though he did't originally plan to go to Tibet, but he has been travelling without any specific agenda for a while but he does not have e-mail so I suppose I won't be able to keep in touch with him, and who saved many parts of the trip because he spoke Mandarin so he could communicate best with the guide we had at first and also hailed all the cabs we needed on that last night and told them where we were going even though it meant he stood in the rain the longest, but he always was smiling and laughing, and who rode the most time in the "dog seat" of the land rover even though it was the worst seat of the vehicle to be in; and finally Jan who I only had a couple of chances to talk with so I did not get to know him or Kristina very well)

We fly back from Lhasa to Kathmandu with about 9 others from our group. The daughter makes arrangements to meet up with a couple of people after I leave for the states.

The next day we went to Bahktapur, which is a very old city near Kathmandu. You have to pay to go in, but the daughter got a pass to allow her to return for the duration of her visa. She like the area a lot, and is thinking of staying there for part of the time before her semester starts. Overall it is a lot less “tourist-y” than Kathmandu, which means less crowds and fewer shopkeepers pushing themselves on you.

The day is also the daughter’s 20th birthday. Our travel guide has arranged to take us and his family out to a local restaurant with a prefixed Nepali meal and Nepali culture show. Lehka’s daughter, it turns out, is going to turn 12 on Saturday, and invites Daughter #1 to her party! She also asks for guitar lessons, which I think will be forthcoming. Overall, it looks like a pretty good birthday considering she is on the opposite side of the globe from most of her family, with no cake or presents to open. Of course, I think my imminent return to home is present enough for her!

Friday, August 17, 2007

Another Day, another monastary

Well, once we got back on the timetable in Tibet, it's been nothing but monastaries at least once and sometimes twice a day. After a while, they all sort of blend together. We've been to the Bauiju Temple, the ta Shi Lhun Po Monastary, the Drepung Monastary,and the Potala Palace. Here's my overall take on them...

Some things meet your expectations, like buff momo. It's just as good as I hoped, so I have had a lot of it. Some things less so. Like cheese momos, which one of our group had ordered today at lunch, and pronounced "It tastes like the inside of the monastaries", which was not a good thing, since it was made with yak-milk cheese, which tastes rancid. Even when it's not.

Tibetan Buddhism is another. I had an image of Tibetan Buddhism as being somewhat ethereal, fed by images in the West of the "downtrodden people of Tibet". It's not. Now, I know that all religious organizations need to raise funds to clothe, house and feed the leaders. And that all religions tend to go overboard - for example, despite vows of poverty, the Vatican is pretty fabulously wealthy. Mormons give 10% to their church, Judiasm charges admission for the high Holy Days, and don't forget about the evangelical Christians with the mega-churchs. But when you tour the temples and monastaries, you see what looks like naked greed. First of course, you pay an admission fee (reasonable enough, given the traffic, and included in the package tour). You then enter the grounds of the temple, which has several buildings crawling with monks, the faithful, and tourists. Each temple has a number of rooms, with various icons of Buddha, important lamas, various figures in the Tibetan Buddhist iconography (think of Catholic saints), as well as wall hangings (thangas), yak butter candles (fed by the faithful bringing in bags of yak butter to scoop a spoonful or two), and incense and a burner of evergreen smoke. It is all very mind-numbing, esecially when you are not completely up on the many forms of the Buddha, the deities, etc, etc. Plus inside it is somewhat dark and smells of rancid butter and incense.

Now, imagine going into church or synagoge, and instead of having a collection plate or box to drop your money or envelope discretely, cash is jammed into every nook and cranny. Mao's face (on the yuan) is everywhere, which is pretty ironic, in and of itself. People put money in the picture frames, the altars, the tables, etc. They even jam them into the hands of the Buddhas in all their various configurations. Picture Jesus on the cross, with a few twenties stuck behind his knees and neck, and jammed into his hands; or the manger scene with dollar bills spilling from the cradle. Or when the rabbi opens the ark of the Torah, fives nad tens spill out. Plus, if you want to take any pictures of the inside, you have to cough up another 10-25 yuan PER ROOM!! For this reason, most of my shots are of exteriors, although I did take this one:

This is a deity that gives children safe sleep. No, really! If your child is having trouble sleeping, you bring them to this statue so they can touch the nose! You can even buy masks representing it to put in the kid's bedroom! I can just imagine trying to go to sleep with this thing staring at you!

Now when I took this picture, the monk in charge of the room came rushing at me to get the 20 yuan. When I left the room and showed the picture to one of my fellow travellers, the monk in charge of that room rushed over to demand another 20 yuan. I could not get him to understand the picture was taken in the last room. Fortunately, one of my fellow photographers had taken pictures in this room and hadn't paid yet, so the monk was happy with her 20 yuan.

For a religion that stresses detachment from the worldly desires, there is sure a lot of interest in money!

Politically, it is a very interesting situation in Tibet. When we touring Potala Palace, officially the home of the Dalai Lama, he is discussed as though he were on holiday in India. Since 1959. But any day, he might stop back to resume holding lectures and audiences. Imagine if the Pope had to leave the Vatican and could not return to Italy, but was stuck in France (a situation that did in fact occur in the past, and led to a brief period of 2 popes, one of whom was later termed the "false pope". It's actually a very interesting period in western history where religion and politics were intertwined)

As I type this, someone just "happened" to wander over to glance at my screen. I suppose there are some very strong filters in the internet cafes to watch for any subversive information being put on line. At one point on our tour, when someone asked the guide something about the Panchan Lama (sort of the "vice lama"), she stated "Please don't ask about anything political - it is not allowed to discuss". So I will save the story of the Panchan Lama for another time. But it is interesting, especially when we were in Nepal, where the King and the government, as well as the Maoists, are openly criticized by some the the Nepali people we met.

Here's another brief reminder of how things differ here: Symbols have very different meanings. Take a look at this picture:

Now, to Western eyes, this looks like a bizzare juxtaposition of Nazi and Jewish symbols. But the swastika originated in Tibet as a Buddhist symbol (or possibly pre-Buddhism in Tibet), migrated to Nepal and India. Indai was once invaded by Aryans, an ethnic group based in what is today Eastern Europe. Hitler stole the symbol and the name "Aryan". So it really has not connotations here that we in the West would have about it.

Overall, it's a strange place, with good and bad elements to it. Tomorrow we head back to Kathmandu, where I'll be able to see my own blog, as well as the end to the trip.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

More Pictures!

OK, here are some more pictures, bringing us more or less up to date. I have taken over 1100 photos so far! (So don't expect to see them all here) BTW, there is a bizarre quirk in the Chinese internet censors in that I can post my blog, but I can't see it!! Guess I'll have to wait till we get back to Nepal to make sure it tuns out OK...

Monks just wanna have fun!

Tony and me with our prayer wheels

Traffic jam on the Friendship Highway!

A boy in Tibet

Street scene in Tibet - they are butchering a yak (you can see a little bit of fur on the right)

A woman turning prayer wheels in Tibet

Yak butter candles at a Tibetan monastary

Daughter #1 and a sadhu (hindi holy man), who just gave her a tika

The daughter with Kathmandu Valley behind her

A remnant of the hippie days in Kathmandu

Mmmmm - buff momo!

Monkey at Monkey Temple (Swayambhunath)

Street in the middle of Thamel - yes, it's always this chaotic during the day!

Masks at a shop in Thamel

Pretty much what it says - at the Monkey Temple

Nioce view of one of the many stupas (Buddhist temples) we visited in Nepal