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Tue 30 Sep 2014

misriram

Mr. Misri Ram, Shoecare Professional. Originally from Bihar, India, he learned English “for business” — a savvy man.

Another nice day — my first day in Pokhara with not a drop of rain! No major activities today. I handled some business, e.g. settling my bill with the hotel, picking up my laundry, doing some banking, and booking into a six-day trek in the Annapurna Conservation Area.

I once again did a lot of walking around Lakeside. The shoeshine man, sitting cross-legged on a small piece of fabric near a telephone pole, greeted me as usual. He called out, “shine for you today, sir!” but once he saw my flip-flops he decided there was not enough real estate there to get a good shine. He was the consummate salesman, always smiling and saying “Namaste,” or “Ni Hau,” and if his prospective customer said, “no, thank you,” he always smiled and said, “maybe tomorrow.”

In fact in my case he was a bit too zealous and if I had heeded his advice my boots may not have been up to the rigors of my upcoming trek. You see, he shined my boots a few days back, and did a fine job. However, as he was finishing, up, he had a concerned look on his face and said, “Sir, here you have stitching, it is coming off!” I was worried, as these were practically new boots, and furthermore, I was planning to rely on them for several days of trekking across mountainous terrain. I looked closely and…wait! there was no actual stitching in the area he was pointing, only a sort of simulated stitching where the rubber sole was glued to the upper. I may not be a shoe expert, but I know that this sort of stitching does not come off, since it is fake to begin with!

But he persisted, and began to get out a fat needle and some thick, sturdy brown twine, saying, “good price, I give you good price!” Now I was worried, but for a different reason. “No, no please, it’s OK, no, not today, just the shine today please!” I somehow managed to get my well-polished boots back on my feet before he poked hundreds of holes in them with his heavy-duty needle. I narrowly avoided having my waterproof Rockports turned into two shiny, black leather sieves!

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Mon 29 Sep 2014

A Kayak Level View of Fewa Tal

A Kayak Level View of Fewa Tal

To cool off from yesterday’s chili momos I went kayaking today on Fewa Tal. I was considering renting a rowboat since for some reason I thought it would be cheaper than renting a kayak, but after asking around I found out the opposite was true. And in a kayak, you’re right on the water, as if one with the surface of the lake. A fine way to combat dualism.

One of the guys at the kayak rental place helped me take the kayak down to the water a few blocks away. It took me a while to get my sea legs back (or in this case, lake arms) as I had not been kayaking in a while. One of the challenges I faced initially was that periodically for no good reason whatsoever the kayak would just turn around in a complete circle as if it had a mind of its own. There was nothing I could do to stop this — if I fought against the turn in one direction I just ended up spinning out in the other direction. I attributed this to my poor kayaking skills. I finally decided that each time I felt that spinning sensation coming on I would just let the kayak do its thing until I was once again facing the direction I wished to go. Nowhere to go, nothing to do…

I started out rowing toward a small island on one side of the lake, but I decided to just circumnavigate it and not pull into the dock for fear of making a fool of myself trying to get out of the kayak. Then I rowed in the other direction, and as I more carefully observed the surface of the water I noticed tiny little eddies and gentle fluctuations in the little wave patterns. Aha! Therein lay The Mystery of the Spontaneous Spinning. I wondered if things would be different if I were to go in the other direction and I later confirmed this to be true.

I ended up being on the water for about four hours! I was one of only a handful of kayakers out there and I was able to venture to a more placid part of the lake and row around at my leisure, stopping at times to rest and chillax. Coming back I made good time rowing with the current and even though those pesky eddies and whirlpools were still there, I was able to navigate them more easily.

Finally I decided to go onto the tiny island and have a look. It was no more than 50 meters square, and as I got nearer to it I heard chanting and the periodic clang of large bells. I saw colorful decorations and flowers, and smelled incense. Yes, on this baby island there was a baby Hindu temple, just big enough for one person to go inside! I took off my flip-flops and walked clockwise around the temple, spent several minutes taking some photos and relaxing and eventually rowed back to the boathouse. (By the way, I was able to get out of the kayak, and back in, without incident. However a Chinese guy near me was not so lucky. As he was standing up near the dock his kayak capsized and he dove involuntarily into the water with a big splash. As I helped him up I shared with him my Great Fear of Doing Exactly What He Did).

For the rest of the day, standing or sitting, walking or lying down, I had the sensation of gently rocking on an undulating surface of Water, Himalayan Water.

Placid Waters...

Placid Waters…

Guarding the Tiny Temple

Guarding the Tiny Temple

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Sun 28 Sep 2014

Momos!

Momos!

Today I did very little. I was tired from yesterday’s hike up to the Peace Pagoda so I slept in a bit. Then I ventured out to wander around the lakeside and take some photos of the lake and nearby mountains. Above the hills in the distance was the striking peak of Machhapuchchhre (Fishtail Mountain), almost 7000 meters at its apex, jutting up like a carved white arrowhead between some clouds. I took a few photos but was unable to get a good shot due to the clouds.

I bought some postcards and stamps at a local bookstore, then had a pot of tea on the balcony of the Rainbow Restaurant near my hotel while I addressed and wrote notes on the cards. From my perch on the balcony I had a good view of the Peace Pagoda in the distance.

As usual, the waiter at the restaurant asked where I was from, and we spoke briefly about his interest in hip-hop culture, which originated in the South Bronx (I gathered from our talk that he had no idea of its origins, nor any idea of where the South Bronx was!). He pointed to his low-slung jeans, and, palms down, waved his arms around a bit, as if he were a Nepali rapper.

Given that this is a tourist town, it is not surprising that local people would ask where I am from. However, they almost always seem dubious of my answer. After all, how could a brown desi-looking dude be from New York?

Here is a standard scenario: “Where you from?” New York, I say, and receive a blank stare. Maybe they don’t know of New York? I then clarify by saying, “I’m from the USA.” Then, “You look like Nepali.” I tell them my family is from India, but that I was born and grew up in the USA. Blank stare. Then, “Yes, yes, India, your face: Indian. You from India! Which part?” I tell them I have family in Bangalore. They ask, “You have house in Bangalore?” I tell them I stay at my relatives’ home there when I visit. “No house? then where you live?” I decide this is a losing battle and try to end the conversation. But next, “You speak Hindi?” I tell them no, I don’t speak Hindi. They look very suspiciously at me then say, “You Indian, but don’t speak Hindi?!” After this I never quite know what to say. I see pity in their eyes as the homeless desi who can’t speak his own language says goodbye in English and walks off down the street.

This evening I decided to try the “chili momos” at a local restaurant, on the recommendation of Gus, the Dam Guy. Wherever they served momos, I noticed that the menu listed three types: steamed, kothey and chili. The basic momo is a steamed half-moon shaped dumpling filled with your choice of meat or vegetables. “Kothey” dumplings are steamed, then pan-fried on one side. Chili momos are kothey momos doused in a chili-tomato sauce.

When the waiter came over, I ordered a lemon soda, then the chili momos. “Wedge or Buff?” he asked. What could he mean? “I’m sorry could you repeat that please?” I asked. “Do you want wedgetable or buffalo inside?” Ah yes, of course. “Thank you, I’ll have the wedge, um, veg please.”

The momos arrived covered in a rich, dark sauce, interspersed with chunks of sautéed green peppers and onions, and garnished with a few slices of raw cucumber and carrots. They were very tasty, but hot, hot, HOT!! I used the lemon soda to cool down, and when that proved ineffectual, I found the slices of cucumber provided a temporary respite. Now I know what “cool as a cucumber” really means! By the time I finished, I was sweating, my nose was running, my eyes watering, smoke was rising around me, and I was in grave danger of Spontaneous Human Combustion. But I did enjoy the momos and I plan to go back for more! They were every bit as good as Gus suggested.

Hot Momos!

Hot Momos!

Me & Momos

Me & Momos

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Sat 27 Sep 2014

World Peace Pagoda, Pokhara

World Peace Pagoda, Pokhara

The weather was much better today — some showers in the morning and light drizzle in the evening, but the afternoon was quite clear. I took advantage of this and walked to the World Peace Pagoda at the top of a hill on the other side of Fewa Lake.

First I needed to charge my camera batteries, as I had forgotten to charge them overnight. Conveniently it rained while I camped in my room through the rest of the morning, waiting for the batteries to charge.

Just before noon the sky cleared and I ventured out in the direction of the steep hill where I could see the Peace Pagoda in the distance. I asked directions of a few locals along the way, and following their advice I eventually crossed a wooden suspension bridge over the Pardi Khola (river) then began the ascent by climbing some stone steps to the right at the end of the bridge.

The trail began as a wide road, but there were no signs (in English or any other language) indicating the direction of the pagoda. I eventually asked a young man who also appeared to be a tourist but it turned out he was a local Nepali just taking his wife and young children on a Saturday walk in the direction of the Pagoda. He showed me the way up a steep hill into the heavily wooded hillside and I followed them on the trail for a while. They were going quite slowly since the children could not walk very fast, so after some time I overtook them and followed the clearly established path for another half hour or so.

Then I got a bit lost. There were a few forks in the trail and eventually I took one! However that path eventually became less conspicuous as it disappeared into the underbrush, so I retraced my steps back to the main trail, which no longer seemed to be ascending. I reasoned that the pagoda was at the top of the hill so I needed a trail that was ascending. I tried a few other offshoots that were clearly ascending but they also seemed to disappear into the underbrush.

I again retraced my steps and wondered what to do next. For the last half hour I had encountered no other tourists and only a few Nepalis (who did not speak any English) — there was a man fishing at a small pond and some elderly women in traditional clothing who seemed to be foraging. I decided the only option was to return to the main trail in hopes of finding someone who could provide me with some guidance on which direction to go. Otherwise I would have to return to the city without attaining my goal of reaching the pagoda.

As I was trudging back through the underbrush — lo! there appeared before me two young American guys who were also seeking the pagoda. I reviewed with them my various explorations up to this point, and as we were discussing which direction to try next, one of them (Antonio) spotted the pagoda through the trees, a few hundred yards to our right and further up. Somehow Antonio beat a path through what vaguely appeared to be a trail through the trees and underbrush and got us onto a ridge on which there was a path heading straight for the pagoda.

There was a small restaurant at the base of the pagoda and we stopped to rest and chat for a while. I learned more about my trail companions. They had met in university and were recent grads; Antonio was living in Kathmandu and Gus was visiting him after spending a few months in India.

Antonio was from Catskill, NY, and was spending a year in Kathmandu working as what he called a “catalyst” at a local school. He was helping the children with their English studies and informally teaching them Spanish as well.

Gus was traveling the world for a year while working on a fellowship of the same duration. Specifically he was researching the social impacts of dams throughout the world, and among other things documenting his findings in a blog (riversolitaire.wordpress.com).

I asked whether he would be researching the Three Gorges Dam in China, variously called the “worlds most powerful dam,” as well as “an environmental catastrophe” and “a model for disaster.” It has even been alleged that the dam has slowed the earth’s rotation (so if it seems like your days just keep getting longer and longer: blame the Chinese). Gus said that he had been advised not to attempt to research the dam, much less document his findings, due to several factors, such as Chinese censorship, Chinese citizens’ likely reluctance to talk about the project for fear they may be punished for doing so, and not least, the risk that he himself could face “trouble” with the Chinese authorities.

After 20 minutes or so they left to ascend to the pagoda further uphill, while I waited for some momos I had ordered (I clearly was developing an addiction to momos — I needed mo! and mo! momo!).

After consuming the momos I made my way up the stairs to the pagoda, which was built by a Japanese monastic organization in 1992. The sky was a bit hazy but there was still a great view of Fewa Tal and Pokhara City down below. I also got a better view of the paragliders sailing around in the currents above the hill behind Pokhara.

Alcove, World Peace Pagoda

Alcove, World Peace Pagoda

View from World Peace Pagoda

View from World Peace Pagoda

View of World Peace Pagoda from Pokhara

View of World Peace Pagoda from Lakeside, Pokhara

On the way back down I again had some trouble finding the correct trail but eventually made it to the bottom of the hill, only in a different place from where I started. All around me were rice paddies and the smell of livestock was so strong that I began to enter an altered mental state. However with the help of some locals I finally made it back to the main road and back into the city.

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“And I Ended Up in the Middle of a Rice Paddy”

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Fri 26 Sep 2014

Fruit Seller, Lakeside, Pokhara

Fruit Seller, Lakeside, Pokhara

After breakfast at the Boomerang Restaurant (where the WiFi password was “kangaroo99”) I stopped at a few trekking agencies to enquire about options for treks over the next few weeks. It seemed that the best options would be a six-day trek to the Poon Hill viewpoint, at around 3200 meters, or a ten-day trek to the Annapurna Base Camp, at around 4000 meters. I was hoping to join a group, but none of the agencies had any availability for me to join up. I left my mobile number and email address and they said they would contact me if some options materialized. They explained they could arrange a trek for me alone, but the cost of course would be higher than sharing a guide with others in a group.

I continued to explore the town on foot for the next hour or so. I had an inexpensive and substantial thali style lunch at a local restaurant, ending with a tasty masala tea. In the afternoon the rain commenced again, so I stayed in my room to do some reading and writing. The shower cooled the air and the percussive white noise of the steady downpour was soothing. Sure enough, I fell asleep for a few hours.

September is officially the end of the rainy season in this region, so I was looking forward to better weather soon.

A Tree in Lakeside, Pohara

A Tree in Lakeside, Pokhara

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Thu 25 Sep 2014

View of Fewa Tal from Lakeside, Pokhara

View of Fewa Tal from Lakeside, Pokhara

The bus station was conveniently a few minutes’ walk from my Kathmandu hotel, so I packed up the two bags that carried my current worldly possessions. I put on the backpack and slung the other bag over my shoulder. Several sources had told me the bus ride would be “six to seven hours,” but I reminded myself that they were speaking in Desi time, which really meant “eight to nine hours or maybe longer – who knows?” Amazingly, the bus left on time, and I was installed in the middle seat in the back row, so I had room to stretch my long legs during the journey.

Now, Google Maps indicates that the distance from Kathmandu to Pokhara is all of 202 km (125 miles), which on a U.S. or Canadian highway would take less than two hours. But to cover this distance here in Nepal the road rises, falls, and curves around hills and mountains. At times we proceeded more slowly than a snail on a bicycle, meaning we were stopped altogether for long periods. There was very heavy traffic, consisting mostly of trucks and some buses, trying to push both ways through narrow, winding roads, leading to bottlenecks and blockages.

Next to me on the bus was a young Japanese woman going to Pokhara to meet up with her guide for a six-day trek into the Annapurna area. She said she worked in a department store selling children’s clothing, and since, like most Japanese, her job only gave her 15 vacation days per year, she had quit her job in order to travel for a few months. In the last several weeks she had already traveled around China and Myanmar, and Nepal was her last destination prior to returning home to Kyoto (n.b.: my fellow traveler informed me that if you see Hello Kitty in Kyoto, she will be wearing Kimono). She had studied English in Australia for three months and was very fluent so we had no trouble communicating. Clearly she enjoyed traveling — she said she had been to over 50 countries! We shared some stories of countries that both of us had visited, and she gave a happy thumbs up for Thailand, where I was planning to go after visiting family in South India.

We finally arrived in Pokhara around 4:00 p.m. I was able to orient myself by reviewing a few Lonely Planet maps, and (smartly as it turned out) I waved off the taxi drivers and followed the street around the lake until I reached my hotel, less than ten minutes from the bus stop.

Entrance to Hotel Nirvana, Pokhara

Entrance to Hotel Nirvana, Pokhara

Hotel Nirvana was nicely situated several minutes’ walk from the busy tourist strip, almost hidden behind its front garden. After checking in I had planned to take a stroll into the central area to have dinner, but the skies opened up and poured down a torrential, constant shower of rain for a few hours. So I raised my umbrella and walked right across the street and had a pizza at the Caffe Concerto, where I also availed myself of their fast WiFi connection.

Finally the rain subsided and I walked up and down the tourist strip, observing the signs for the various hotels and bars, and peering into some of the shops strung along “Lakeside” as this area is called, since it borders Fewa Tal (lake).

Pleasant Plants Near My Door

Pleasant Plants Near My Door

Fewa Tal at Dusk

Fewa Tal at Dusk

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Wed 24 Sep 2014

View of Boudhanath Stupa from Rooftop Cafe

View of Boudhanath Stupa from Rooftop Cafe

When I booked my stay at the monastery, I told them I would be leaving today. However, over the last few days I considered extending my stay by a few more days. I was enjoying having the company of like-minded people and it certainly was much more peaceful at the monastery compared to Thamel. In the end I woke up this morning with the idea of going back to Boudhanath to take some photos (I neglected to take my camera when I went on Monday) and then returning to Thamel in the afternoon.

Bram also wanted to go back to Boudhanath — he said he had gone in the evening when it was dark, and he wanted to see what it looked like during the day. So we set off after breakfast, this time taking a more direct route, as we followed some monks going in the same direction.

Once we got there we went up to the elevated base and did one circuit around, as Bram was unable to do this at his last visit. We strolled around on the street a bit and then had a cup of tea, at a different rooftop restaurant than the one I had gone to with Paola on Monday.

Bram spoke fluent English, French and Dutch, and when I asked if he spoke Flemish, he answered in the affirmative, but also explained to me that Dutch and Flemish are basically the same language but with different pronunciation. In fact, he said, they are written in exactly the same way, as evidenced by the joint Dutch-Flemish spelling bees that Bram told me about.

I learned that Bram had just completed a year of medical school. However he was not what I would call a “traditional” med student — he had studied law and worked in Europe as an intellectual property attorney for several years, then decided to change careers to do something he found more meaningful. He explained that he entered university at 17 without a clear idea of what he wanted to do, and ended up studying law somewhat by default.

We had a good discussion about the differences between the European health care systems and the U.S. system. He said that although there were constant concerns about rising health care costs (and of course the corresponding taxes to fund these costs, given that Belgium has a government-funded national health insurance scheme), he and most everyone he knew were satisfied with the system. He noted that in addition to the basic coverage provided by the national health insurance system, Belgians could also purchase commercially available supplemental coverage. He in fact had such supplemental coverage, for which he paid the equivalent of about $230 per year. When I informed him that I was paying $330 per month for basic catastrophic coverage in the U.S., he was quite surprised and said he felt he had no right to complain about his commercial health insurance premium when compared to mine!

Bram went on to Thamel to visit the Belgian embassy to conduct some business, and I stayed for a while in Boudha, meandering about the market stalls and some of the side streets that sprouted off the circular main street around the stupa. I had some momos and another masala tea at a different rooftop cafe, then returned to Kopan by the same more direct route by which I had come.

In the afternoon I settled my bill at the monastery (just over $60 for four days’ lodging and meals!), then returned by cab to the Blue Horizon Hotel in Thamel, around 3:00 p.m.

I must note that since I was not sure how long I would be staying at the monastery, I had not booked a room at the hotel prior to today. I called to confirm that they had a room available, and they quoted me a price of $20. However, when I checked online through TripAdvisor, I saw a single room at Blue Horizon for $15, tax included. There was no WiFi available at the monastery, and the data service (through the local NCell SIM card I got last week) was spotty at Kopan, so I was unable to book the room online despite trying for over a half hour to do so. Finally, I booked the room on booking.com through TripAdvisor, in the cab on the way to the hotel, just minutes before I arrived. It is amazing how cellular communication has pervaded and transformed so-called less developed countries. Everyone here seems to have a cell phone, including the monks at Kopan!

I decided I would go straight to Pokhara tomorrow, and purchased a bus ticket from the hotel receptionist. I also booked a room online for a hotel in Pokhara. The bus was to leave at 7:00 a.m. tomorrow so I went to bed early after another meal at Revolution Cafe.

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