August 30, 2011
I neglected to include any photographs in this post as I have maintained a meticulous collection on my Facebook. Please check them out for pictures and explanations from my trip: http://tinyurl.com/JodysTaiwanTrip
I’m not afraid of flying. (I am, however, afraid of flying crocodiles.) When things go smoothly, I find the whole airplane experience to be somewhat cathartic. You essentially get to do what everyone usually wants to do: spend hours sleeping, reading and watching movies without feeling guilty. Of course, there’s the risk of screaming children (or screaming adults, which is usually coupled with a sudden loss of cabin pressure) or the neighbor who betrays his dignity by drinking three cups of airline coffee and spends the next two and a half hours twitching as he tells you about the trip to Montana where he saw bears fornicating in the wild and even though National Geographic uses high-definition photography you really can’t imagine the majesty of ursine intercourse until you’ve seen it up close. These are the assumed risks of flying, but I’d rather face them than watch a Susan Sarandon movie. Not that the two are mutually exclusive.
I even enjoy being in airports. I like the way I can get from one end of the terminal to the other by shuffling between moving walkways (called “lators,” as no escalation occurs) and can walk in and out of the touch-free bathroom with the knowledge that I never had to compromise my dignity by using my hands for something as degrading as flushing a toilet.
Putting aside the fears of terrorism, broken airplanes, and drunk pilots, the whole flying experience can make one feel downright safe and comfortable. However, leaving the airport womb is a spank in the face. This is especially the case when you are in a foreign country.
As I left the Taipei airport, I had two hours to get to the Taoyuan High Speed Rail train station, where I would catch the bullet train from Taipei to Tainan. The train ride would be two hours, and upon reaching Tainan station I would need to catch a local train at 3 o’clock and take it four stations where I would be meeting up with my friend Alec. I don’t speak Chinese or Taiwanese, there is not much English signage in Taiwan and I did not have a phone.
Therefore, punctuality was key.
Upon exiting the airport, I found the bus parking lot and asked someone where the bus to the High Speed Rail station was. He pointed to a line of people. I bought a ticket and stood in line. As the bus arrived, my spidey-sense tingled and I asked a worker if the bus was going to Taoyuan Station. “No.” I refunded my ticket and began searching again for the proper bus.
“Bus to Taoyuan Station?” I asked another employee. He pointed to the final stall. A woman standing at the final bus stall saw me stumbling around like a cat fresh out of the washing machine and asked me where I was going. “Taoyuan Station.” She assured me that this was the proper bus.
I boarded and asked the driver, “Taoyuan Station?” He nodded. I paid and sat down. I was uncertain how long the bus ride would be. Thus, when we passed a sign for the High Speed Rail station a few minutes into the ride, I figured we would be looping around and returning shortly, à la the Möbius strip.
Forty-five minutes into the ride, I was so far in the middle of somewhere, I wouldn’t have been been able to explain to anybody how somebody could begin to get to where I was. However, despite any indication as to the location of my whereabouts, I found comfort in the few familiarities around me. For example, it was clear that I was still within an oxygen-rich environment as no one was asphyxiating on the sidewalk. Also, there were Starbucks, meaning limited supplies of milk and cinnamon were nearby. Yet, after an hour on the bus, anxiety set in.
I pulled out my Kindle (or, my Kindleh, for those who prefer the Yiddish diminutive) and turned on the free Internet.
“Taoyuan High Speed Rail Station is only five minutes from the airport!” The Internet said.
“Shit,” I said.
I turned and asked the woman who had previously affirmed my bus selection, “Is this going to the High Speed Rail station?”
“Ooooh…,” she oooohed at me.
“High. Speed. Rail.” I repeated.
“No! Why you not say that before?”
Instead of slamming my head into the window, I moved up to the front of the bus and indicated in Chinese sign language that I would “like to get off the bus before I kill someone with my Kindle.” My debarking request was denied and I was assured by the woman that the bus driver would take care of the situation.
Eventually, the bus emptied and I was alone with the driver. As he continued to drive, I wondered if I was being chauffeured to the High Speed Rail Station. I felt a brief wave of bravado, as my personal city bus flew through crowded streets in an effort to deliver me to my bullet train. This delusion ended abruptly when the bus stopped on the side of the road. The driver led me across the street, flagged down another bus, and put me on board. As I sat in my new vehicle, I assessed the situation:
Do I have control over whether or not I make the bullet train? No.
Will I survive if I do not make the train? Yes.
So, I played Angry Birds. Forty minutes later, I was sitting on my train.
If my limited time in the country was an indicator of anything, Taiwan is excellent. Down south in Tainan, where Alec was studying at National Cheng Kung University, people were very friendly to us (particularly when Alec spoke Chinese) and the best part was… they had vegetarian food!
Hallelujah! The lord shower grains upon us! A thousand splendid sweet potato suns shine their bountiful rays of broccoli and potato croquettes on a harmonious sea of tofu and wheat gluten trumpets playing an anthem of raw and well-seasoned dishes based in a clear broth!
After two months in Korea, where “vegetarian food” means “less beef,” it was a breath of fresh air to speak with waitresses who not only knew what vegetarianism was, but went out of their way to ensure that I had enough food and enjoyed what I was eating. Alec and I frequented a vegetarian restaurant near his dorm where the owners had adopted him as their pet American. They engaged with him in lively conversation, and gave me the friendliest eyeing a person could ask for. They even brought us to another restaurant and treated us to vegetarian dim sum.
During one particularly feisty consumption of a delicious tofu dish, I asked Alec to tell the owner that I wanted to take the sauce and make a bath out of it. I watched as the two spoke and the owner turned confusedly to the couple eating next to us and made the univeral washing-the-body-with-bar-of-soap pantomime. Eventually, Alec translated, “He says that’s not possible.” Alec cleared the air with, “in America, people express their contentment by saying they ‘want to take a bath.'”
The damage I do is limited.
The main public attraction of Taiwanese cities are the night markets, large swaths of land covered in food booths, flirting teenagers and English misnomer t-shirts. Much like the Spokane County Fair, you can blow your money on carnival games and win Chinese factory-made prizes. Unlike the Spokane County Fair, you can actually win the games at the night market without your father mortgaging the house to bribe the carny. I was particularly keen on a mahjong-bingo fusion game and the shoot the balloons with the BB gun game.
Up north, in Taipei, we ventured throughout the city visiting night markets and Taipei 101, the world’s second largest building and the only thing preventing me from being the tallest free-standing entity in Taiwan. I also had the opportunity to visit another friend from Columbia, Vicky, who was wreaking havoc in Taiwan in her own specialized way. Together, we destroyed the Shillin night market game section.
Despite the remarkable humidity and my smelling like a war crime, Taiwan was a great country to visit. I highly recommend the trip, given that you have some time and someone with you who speaks Chinese.
Also, don’t trust anyone at the airport.
July 31, 2011
The delay in updating my blog cannot be attributed to a dearth of blogable anecdotes, but rather to the ever-increasing viscosity of my creative juices and the simultaneous narrowing of the cranial corridors through which said juices must travel before reaching my cerebral cortex. Doctors call it xerostomia. Like starting a kelp forest fire, the hardest part about blogging is creating the first spark and I finally had a spark moment on Wednesday as I swam to work through the flooded streets of Gangnam.
Seoul was inundated with a record amount of rain on Wednesday and Thursday. Four hundred millimeters* of heaven’s finest water grenades pounded the head, shoulders, knees and toes of anyone crazy enough to venture outside. Meanwhile, the night sky was full of lightning, with thunder crashing like bowling balls enclosed in a steel locker turning in a cement mixer.
While most humble folk find their inspiration at some point between the shampoo lather and the gurgle/discharge of their morning mouth, my eureka moment came showering down at 7:30am, in the middle of a busy intersection, surrounded by women in heels and men in suits. As I stood ankle-deep in the swirling grey mass of flooded sewage and street grime, I couldn’t help but think, “This is perfect blog fodder. To the blogmobile!”
So, here we are. May I continue?
By the time I arrived at school, I was the human equivalent of the forgotten pair of underwear left drenched and sticking to the top of the washing machine; a perfect target for a mildew soiree. Every step I took released a bubbling stream of water from within the confines of my foot aquariums, and when I managed to extract my feet from their pickling jars, I was able to pour out enough water to keep a goldfish content for a week. Left shoeless and sockless (I brought an extra pair of socks, but they also became saturated with angel tears), I was left with no choice but to spend the day barefoot. Given that this was the first day of our second semester, I had to command immediate respect in the classroom. “I will be barefoot today. If you have a problem with that, go outside.”
And that’s how the West was won.
During the last few weeks, I moved to the expat/American military/tourist-heavy Itaewon and have been preoccupied with teaching Korean high schoolers the beauty of the SAT critical writing section. Their progress gives me great satisfaction, or as the Germans call it, Schadenfreude. In my free time, I maintain a modest schedule of gallivanting around town. The following are a few tales from the gallivant.
Transformers 3: in 4D
Seoul is home to one of the world’s only 4D movie theaters. Contrary to popular belief, the fourth dimension is not time, but rather, moving seats. Not only did we experience the wonder of 3-D, but we also rode along with the film, tilting and turning as the robotcarpeople flew through the air. We felt blasts of wind as Transformers shot missiles through the Willis Tower and as humans jumped out of airplanes seeking to save humanity with their ability to manipulate the emotions of extra terrestrial machines. My favorite 4D moments were when characters spat on each other, and we, too, felt the flying spit hit us in the face. Another notable 4D feature were the knobs which would protrude from our seat and whack us in the back and buttocks as Shia LaBeouf was tossed around like a hamster in a NASA wind tunnel. I can’t wait until the day when 4D makes its way into the home television market and you will actually be able to feel LeBron James smack you in the face with a burning wad of $100 bills.
Dongdaemun Pet Market
Cori and I met up with some of the other teachers at the Dongdaemun Market. Aside from getting lost for an hour in the sweltering heat, which necessitated the climbing up and down of multiple flights of stairs in and out of the subway station over and over again left and right side to side not that I am bitter or mind the extra exercise but it was sweltering weather for the love of dehydration, it was a great excursion. My favorite part of Dongdaemun was the pet market. Flourescent frogs? Check. Blue crawfish? You’re damn right. Iguanas the size of mature lambs stuffed into toaster-sized cages? You bet your bottom noodle! They had everything. I enjoyed watching a large turtle stare into a tank of fifty tiny turtles. It was an interesting animal parallel of the Willy Wonka-Oompa Loompa relationship. As Van Gough said, “Pictures speak loudly.” Thus, I present you with some loquacious photographs:
Yongsan Electronics Market
The Yongsan Techno✡ Market is a mall reserved exclusively for technology: Two floors of cameras, a floor of TVs, a floor of computers, a floor of cell phones, and a floor where you can actually throw your money into a toilet bowl shaped like Steve Jobs’ face. It is interesting to note that if you make it past all of the techno-floors, there is a floor of high-end, technologically decked out wedding halls. This is not a joke. I can see it now:
Marjorice stands alone at the altar, waiting, as the guests begin to fidget in their seats with unease. She turns to her father, “I know he’ll come, Daddy. Oh, I know he will.” Her father’s face flushes with the glow of a thousand capillaries detonating as he mutters, “I should’ve killed him when I had the chance. I should. Have. Killed. Him.”
Meanwhile, four floors below, a tuxedoed man sits with tears in his eyes, surrounded by televisions. He turns to the clerk. “You mean to tell me it alternates between 720p and 1080i automatically?” The clerk’s response flows from his lips with the elegance of a high-definition butterfly on steroids. “Yes, I do.”
One final note. In my last post, I mentioned ordering vegetarian pizzas which came topped with bacon. During one such event, my fellow teacher, Dan, offered to split his blueberry dessert pizza with me. We went half-and-half and the blueberry pizza was pretty good despite the strange black color of the sauce. A few days ago, another fellow teacher, Alex, a native-Korean speaker and reader of all menus foreign, read to me the ingredients of the blueberry pizza:
“This isn’t vegetarian.”
“How?” I inquired violently.
“The sauce is made with squid ink.”
Ah ha. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me a third time by making a blueberry pizza (in and of itself an abomination) with squid ink, I give up.
Until next time,
간장공장 공장장은 강 공장장이고,
된장공장 공장장은 공 공장장이다
* For those of you playing at home, that’s a third of Seattle’s average annual rainfall.
✡ Think LCD, not LSD.
July 7, 2011
The low down: I am in South Korea for two months teaching SAT I/II preparation classes in Seoul.
I am currently living in Gangnam, a financial district of Seoul. The buildings are large, the traffic is heavy along the main throughway, and there are the chain restaurants one would expect to find in a developed country. Overall, Gangnam is very reminiscent of downtown Los Angeles, except there are no palm trees and the people are Korean, not Hispanic.
Across the street from my hotel is Asia’s largest underground mall, COEX. I spent my first evening in Seoul wandering through COEX’s winding corridors, a layout inspired by the Borg Cube, searching for anything even vaguely resembling vegetarian fare. I found a place serving “Mushroom and Seaweed soup,” and as I chowed down on my first in-country meal, I fished out from the bowl’s soupy depths a poor, lifeless squid. Another victim of mushroom identity theft, caught in a web of seaweed lies.
When God created the first vegetarian (nature, not nurture), he whispered into her ear, “You may nibble on the green of the land; The bushels, the shrubs, and the tofus will all be yours. However, look over there.” The Almighty commanded with his usual tone of bossy insecurity, gesturing with an outstretched arm. “That is South Korea. Don’t bother going there. You will perish.” God laughed as he hopped into his golden chariot and flew away, leaving the vegetarian to forage in the understory of the forest, searching for botanic sustenance and contemplating the meaning of God’s arcane message.
From Wikipedia: “The Korea Food & Drug Administration recognizes any edible product other than drugs as food.”
Today, I report to you from a vegetarian’s gastronomic wasteland, South Korea, where a bowl of soup has more biodiversity than the Bronx Zoo and pork is considered a salty vegetable. I see egg salad sandwiches topped with ham and bags of cheddar cheese “layered with a thin strip of cod.” I order a vegetarian pizza and am presented with a bacon-topped pie. The kimchi (cabbage) is pickled in shrimp brine and the soup is made from beef stock. These crackers have fish in them and those restaurants only serve meat. As I open the lid to my second vegetarian pizza sprinkled with bacon, I am reminded of Caesar’s final words, “You’ve got to be f*cking kidding me, Brutus.”
Yesterday, during my SAT writing class, I presented the mock prompt: Humans should be allowed to eat every kind of animal. As we compiled arguments for and against the statement, one student volunteered the notion of respecting other cultures
“Sure,” I replied, “For example, in Korea you find things in your soup which would be grounds for a lawsuit in America.”
“The Chinese eat stranger things.”
Fine. I’ll be sure to pack more Cliff Bars when I visit Shanghai.
Aside from the dietary issues (Don’t worry, Mom, I found two vegetarian restaurants and my Korean-speaking colleagues are ordering me different plain noodles everyday), my short time in Korea has been peaceful and interesting.
The students at the school are pleasantly respectful and while the classes are long (8.5 hours), the pay makes it worthwhile. My fellow teachers are humble folk and I couldn’t ask for a more agreeable office staff.
While I have yet to find time for tourist activities, I have spent a few days exploring the immediate vicinity. When I get lost, I embrace the opportunity to do some Seoul searching. And when I am really lost, I show a crudely drawn map to a couple of dudes who speak no English, and allow one of them to take me into his car and drive me to my destination. Of course, I remember the childhood axiom, “Don’t get into a car with a stranger taller than you.” As I scan the horizon, I see little brunette heads bobbing below me. I think I am okay.
Seoul is an advanced city with clean public transportation and an overt affinity for all things technological. And while I have yet to see a movie here, rest assured, the cast of Finding Nemo will always be received warmly in the Korean market. Likely in a bowl of soup.
As they say, 또봐요
January 19, 2010
When the Nigerian Knickerbomber decided to ignite his underwear on board a Northwest Airlines flight, a challenge was posed to the TSA which had not been faced since the great Airport Security ‘Truth or Dare’ tournament of the 1980’s.
“TSA, I dare you to ask every air passenger to remove their underwear before going through airport screening.”
If the modified TSA security policies which went into effect after the 2001 shoe bombing attempt are any indication of the success reactionary policies can have in improving airline security, then it is time to be shrewd and fly in the nude.
Anyways, when winter break rolled around and it was time to make my way back to the homeland, Spokane, I turned to an alternative means of transportation, Craigslist Rideshares. If you have never heard of Craigslist, let me be the first to welcome you to the Internet. Have fun and watch out for the pornographers.
For the rest of you, there is a rideshare section of Craigslist which serves as a forum for people looking to split gas and driving as they make their way from Point A to Point B. Or in my case, Point Way the Hell Over Here to Point Way the Hell Over There. I had about a month to kill, a country to cross, and a goal of making it back to Spokane by January 16th, just in time for my friend Joel Adam’s wedding.
Leg one: New York, NY to Chicago, IL
I shared the ride with Ben and Valerie, two Brooklyn-based individuals who coincidentally both specialize in making New York city roof tops plant-friendly. Ben is starting the rooftop farm revolution with his 6,000 square foot field of crops situated on the roof of a warehouse in Greenpoint, and Valerie is ensuring that the penthouse gardens of New York’s elite remain green. Contrary to the warnings of my friends, neither Ben nor Valerie were “Craigslist killers” or “made me do weird things.” To the chagrin of the newspapers, both turned out to be (allegedly) normal and nice people. We dropped Valerie off in Ann Arbor, Michigan and I stayed the night at Ben’s brother’s house. The next day, Ben and I drove to Chicago, where I made it to my brother Ariel’s apartment in good time.
Leg two: Chicago, IL to Boulder, CO
After spending a week in Ariel’s hood, I met up with my next rideshare allies, John, Tim, and Tim’s dog Avery. John is a peaceful dude, who works in non-violent communication facilitation, as well as alternative means of data communication for Internet social networking. Tim is an English student in Denver and I have a sneaking suspicion that he is also a secret agent. Avery is an astrophysicist, or a dog, I cannot recall exactly. We made the trip in fifteen hours, only stopping for gas and a quick detour into Godknowswhere, Iowa to pick up some possessions for a friend of John’s. My favorite part of the ride was the seven hours staring at the open expanse known as Nebraska. It inspired me to never return to Nebraska ever again. I hate you Nebraska. I wish I could say more about the drive, but it mostly consisted of music, gas station food, and the hypnotic passing of a thousand yellow median lines. Speeds were achieved in the car which cannot be reported on the Internet, but needless to say, it was good to make it to Colorado in one piece.
Leg three: Boulder, CO to Los Angeles, CA
After a magical week in Boulder with my best buddy, Jon, finding a ride to Los Angeles was proving to be difficult. With only one offer from a Craigslist Killer (see the end of the post), I almost caved in and bought a plane ticket home. However, at 8pm one fateful evening, I received an email from Larry, saying that he would be leaving for Los Angeles that evening. After throwing my stuff together and Jon driving me thirty minutes outside of Boulder, I was on the road with Larry and his cat, headed to Los Angeles. Larry works on the creative side of advertising and is in a band, while his cat primarily spends her time vomiting on my bag:
*pained cat noises followed by the sound of liquid sloshing*
“Uhh, Larry, I think your cat just puked on my bags.”
We drove all through the night, fueled only by our desire to live and those little 5-Hour Energy drinks (Motto: “FIVE HOURS OF ENERGY WITH NO CRASH!…UNLESS OF COURSE YOU ARE FATIGUED AND DRIVING, IN WHICH CASE, YOU MIGHT CRASH.”) We made the trip in about fifteen hours, transitioning from the snow of Colorado to the sun and surgery-inspired youthfullness of Southern California.
Leg Four: Los Angeles, CA to Oakland, CA
I spent my time in Los Angeles catching up with family, seeing friends, and eating “animal style” delights at In-N-Out Burger. I stayed with my Aunt Clare and Uncle David in Burbank (home of Nickelodeon studios and Burbank Airport), who were nice enough to let me sublet one of their cats’ rooms and partake in a weekly festival called El Pollo Loco night. Despite the lovely visit, however, the fourth leg of my trip was calling, and it came time for me to join my three-man Indian crew in the trip to the Bay Area. Virender, Sree, and Siraj are all engineers in Los Angeles, but commute weekly to their homes in the Bay Area. We spent the ride watching Bollywood music videos and eating at Subway. I slept most of the trip, so my contribution to the ride consisted mainly in adding a little extra weight to ensure adequate rear wheel traction.
Leg Five: Oakland, CA to Spokane, WA
After spending the weekend with my brother, Avi, and his Teach For America crew, I had to return to Spokane.
So, I flew, damnit.
I had served my time. Have you ever driven across the freaking country in compact vehicles manufactured for average to under average heighted Americans? Despite the drawbacks of flying in airplanes these days, our Southwest flight crew had the courtesy to not make our handcuffs too tight during the last hour of the flight, and they even let one lady drink from a glass of water. It cost her $12, but beggars cannot be chosers during this age of terrorism and economic recession.
My parents picked me up from the airport and we all lived happily ever after in Spokane, WA.
The entirety of my Craigslist journey cost about $200 in gas money. If you have the time to travel, and you are on a multi-stop journey, you may want to check out Craigslist rideshares. For those of you worried about the psychos who lurk the internet just waiting to catch your cheap scent and throw you into a pit full of Chihuahuas and those guys from the Jersey Shore, I will leave you with two pieces of advice:
1) You have nothing to worry about if you are the weird Craigslist guy,
2) Avoid traveling with this character…
(Click on the pictures to enlarge)
…And then I clicked the link and saw the pictures of his van….
September 1, 2009
Ah, hello. Despite the definite possibility that I would never write another blog post, you decided to check in anyways. Well bravo, Mr. Bond.
I mentioned in the previous post that I went paragliding. Pokhara is a paraglider’s dream in that there are around 330 paraglidable days out of the year. Additionally, when the weather is perfect (which it generally is, barring the months that I am here) one can ride the thermals up to around 3000 meters and glide around the Himalayas, getting a bird’s eye view of the peaks and potentially soiling one’s Gortex in the process. My friend Shyam knows a dude who operates one of the paragliding companies, and thanks to a friendly call I was able to take a ride for free…saving a pretty penny in the process. (Thanks, Shyam!)
I stood on the steep side of a hill, with my pilot (Rajess) strapped on to my back and our parachute laying out behind us. We waited for five minutes and eventually a big surge of wind blew our parachute into the air. Leaning forward we had to run down the hill as fast as possible, as to not be blown backwards. We ran, ran, ran, and before I could really notice the transition, my legs had no more ground to run on, as we floated off into the air. It was quite a pleasant experience. We flew around searching for thermals, and when one was found it gently lifted us up until we hit the clouds. The trip lasted for half an hour, and while we could not see the mountains because of the clouds, we did do some crazy acrobatics over the lake (including one number where we spun back and forth, like someone jiggling a door knob… the G force nearly pulled the camera out of my hand.) It was a crazy little afternoon adventure.
Against my better judgement, I decided to do a few day’s worth of trekking. I found a guide, and we set off on a 30 km circuit in the Annapurna Conservation Area. First, though, we had to take a bus from Pokhara to the entry point. We initially rode on top of the bus, which was quite comfortable except for my having to repeatedly duck down as to not hit my head on low-lying power lines. Also riding on top of the bus were a handful of other people, as well as five burlap sacks containing five living pigs. I was introduced to the pigs with the instructions to “not stand or sit on them.” The livliness of the animals was in question until one unsuspecting fellow stepped on a bag. The pig inside was definitely alive. Anyways, it began to rain, so I rode the last hour inside the bus, bent over like a prostrating giraffe. Also, at one point I hit a small child with my backpack. His mother was very angry. (You can decide whether or not I did it on purpose. Your response is an indicator of how lonely you are.)
**A quick side note for the easily confused: Trekking in Nepal is not like alpine hiking, as one is not expected to pitch a tent and camp at night, and it is not like mountain climbing, as no climbing equipment is necessary. Rather, trekking consists of hiking on trails and stone paths during the day, and spending the night in one of the many tea house lodges which have been set up along the trail. Therefore, there is no need to bring a sleeping bag or dehydrated tofu chili, as beds and food are always avaiable. Class dismissed.**
The first day of the trek was very bearable. We jogged the path at a fast pace and reached our night’s lodgings in two hours, whereas supposedly it usually takes five. We stayed at a little lodge in a place called Hile. The lodge owner’s name was Beem, an excitable little fellow with a passion for English movies and trying to make his guests feel comfortable. The generous character of Beem was best exemplified when we crowded around a small TV to watch “Die Hard 2″ and Beem handed me a Q-tip. “What’s this for?” I asked. “To clean your ears,” he replied, as he began to dig into his head with a Q-tip of his own. Looking around, I saw that he was in good company. I was 1500 meters above sea level, watching “Die Hard 2″ on Pakistani Filmax, surrounded by four guys cleaning their ears happily with Q-tips. I decided to save mine for an emergency.
The second day of the trek ranked very high on the unpleasantness scale and would have made a good plot for a book called, “The Eighty Times I Contemplated Throwing Myself Off of a Mountain, and Other Short Stories.” Our hike primarily consisted of ascending 1300 meters up a hill. There are a few different ways to climb this hill, and while my guide prefered to walk upright, I chose the ‘crying on my bleeding hands and knees’ method. To each his own.
Once at the top, we ate a huge cucumber the size of an elephant suppository, before continuing on to Ghorepani, where we stayed the night.
The morning of day three brought the only noteable mountain views of the trek when we saw bits and pieces of the Annapurna mountains through gaps in the clouds. After this short scenery interlude, we continued to climb up to the highest point of our trek, where we hoped to be greeted by the glory of the Himalayas.
*A brief expression of frustration: During my primarily sedentary life, I have participated in a handful of strenuous hikes. However, the discomfort experinced during such hikes is usually fleeting as there is always some beautiful reward, such as a sunrise, a glacial lake, or a scenic view. The discovery of such a reward usually coincides with the post-exercise dopamine rush, and therefore causes me to forget the lactic acid which has gradually filled my body. The reward on this trek was supposed to be the Himalayan mountain range. Yet, upon reaching our highest point at just over 3300 meters, we were rewarded with a white wall of cloud. Thus, if only had I been told that the point of the hike was to see the world’s biggest cloud, would I have been satisfied.*
Anyways, after looking at the Great Wall of Cloud, we continued our third day of trekking by walking down, down, down. It was during this day of descent that we had to take refuge from the rain for two hours. My guide and I spent the two hours sleeping on benches in a lodge, using a table cloth as a blanket. By the time we set out again, the stone path was very slippery and muddy. During this wet part of the trek, I discovered the resiliant nature of leeches. Despite wearing long pants, high socks, and close toed shoes, a few of the suckers managed to burrow their way to my feet where they had a leech keger, drank a year’s supply of blood, and made a mess of the place. I do not know if the leeches had any negative intent, but if they did, the joke is on them. I am O POSITIVE. However, my apologies to the New York Blood Center, as I am fresh out of charitable blood.
We spent our third and final night in Gandruk, before heading back to Nayapol, our drop off and pick up location. Fortunately, this final day of trekking brought nice, clear weather. Unfortunately, the mountains were behind us and a gastrointestinal illness had infiltrated my body. I had a great time in the squat toilets, where I made the discovery that the spiders you see on YouTube, you know the ones which eat chihuahuas without chewing, are real.
All in all, the trek was an experience worth having as I learned a lot about perspiration, perspiration, and blood loss. Make no mistake, though, I would never do it again.
After bidding farewell to Pokhara and a ten hour bus ride (three of which were spent in a hillside traffic jam), I returned to my friend Shyam’s in Kathmandu.
As some of you may have commented so diligently, I neglected to tend to my facial hair for the past two months. Unfortunately, local authorities noticed as well, and at gunpoint I was forced to shave because I was “making children and the elderly uncomfortable.” With my facial hair gone, it was also recommended to me that I get a haircut. So, I visited a local barber. The first sign that something was amiss was posted right inside the barbershop door. It was a poster showing six men, likely fresh out of prison, who were displaying what was elegantly called “The Latest Hairstyles.” One of the dodgy characters had “2002” shaved into the back of his head, while another social deviant had a hairdo which looked like one of the Mario mushroom men after a run in with Edward Scissorhands and a rogue lawnmower. Anyways, despite my request for a disco ball to be shaved into my eyebrows, my hair was cut in a fairly normal fashion, with a pair of rusty scissors and a partially-toothless comb.
When I thought the act was completed, the barber told me to put my head down. I did so, and suddenly felt heavy pounding on my neck and back. Fists clenched, I turned to see that the barber was attacking me! Curious as to why I was receiving this pummeling, I sat up and the man grabbed my eyebrows with his fingers and shook my head with his thumbs pressing into my temples. At one point he even twisted my arms behind my back and yanked on my fingers. When he doused my hair in kerosene, later revealed to be auyervedic oil, I realized I had fallen for one of the oldest tricks in the book: the ol’ “massage after a haircut” trick. Damn. So the score now stands: Barber – 1, Jody – 0. Yet, the joke once again falls on the antagonist, as this unlikely villain gave me something which I have gone years without. A tan line. Unfortunately, it replaced my once normal neck hairline.
I have three days left in Nepal, and may never write again.
Thanks for stopping by.
**For those who were curious, my thanka (Tibetan mandala) painting**
August 23, 2009
This will probably be my penultimate (or potentially ultimate) blog post from Nepal, as I am leaving to go trekking tomorrow for a few days. After the trek, I plan to return to Kathmandu for a few days before leaving Nepal on September 4th.
I will try to squeeze one more post in before then, but experience has shown that often unpredictability overpowers set intentions.
In the meantime, I finished my thanka and went paragliding. Check out the pictures on Facebook… you will have to click to the last pages.
August 21, 2009
The literate amongst you may remember the discomfort the Joad family experienced traveling from Oklahoma to California. Steinbeck’s words have finally come alive for me.
As for the illiterate amongst you, hiohoif ihfkhd ruwroiu ckh wehjwelk.
A lot of people who travel in this part of the world have an anecdote about a terrible transportation experience they had which by comparison made the biblical interpretation of Hell seem as tame as a Men’s Warehouse commercial. Well, I have earned my suit as I finally had my horrendous local transport experience. And it was pretty bad. It was even worse than flying Delta Airlines. I guarantee it.
Last week, I stayed the night in a town called Tansen, which was a little more exciting than waiting for an ant to urinate, and the only available transportation to Pokhara was a local bus. I use local transportation fairly frequently, so I did not think much of it. Come departure time and it was pouring rain, which was lousy primarily because the narrow, winding mountain roads are prone to landslides, which are the ultimate bummer in overland travel. Sure enough, we stopped after driving ten minutes and took a two-hour tea and cigarette break (..no Mom, I do not smoke. I am talking about the bus driver), which I later learned was actually a delay caused by landslides. Do not fret friends, after the delay Hell Ride 2009 commenced.
I do not know exactly how to explain the discomfort I experienced during the ride, as it could only be shared with you accurately if I gave a minute-by-minute account totaling 600 minutes in all. If you are curious, it would have looked a little like this:
Get your elbow out of my rib! Get your umbrella off of my lap! Stop vomiting behind me! Stop vomiting next to me! You are sitting on me! Your umbrella is dripping water on me! Leg cramp… Please do not drive over the cliff! Stop vomiting! Why are you yelling? Why is he yelling? You are standing on my bag! Leg cramp… Is she vomiting or laughing? Why are we stopping here? Why is he selling bananas now? That old woman staring at me smells like milled rice! Leg cramp… Could someone please swaddle that baby? Leg cramp…
… and the ride continued for an additional 597 minutes.
Fun Fact: At one of the more ridiculous points in the trip, I counted 24 people in my immediate, 180 degree frontal region. This includes the four people hanging out the front door and does not include the other 40-60 people seated and standing behind me. It seemed that for every stop which let off ten people, twenty more people would try to get on.
I have all sorts of theories as to why some countries’ public transportation has reached a point beyond sanity, but for that you will have to tune into my PBS special. As for now, we will move on with our lives and add my experience to the list of Questions for God (…the title of the next Mitch Albom novel?)
Pokhara is great. I am staying in the Lakeside area, which is a street running along Phewa Tal (one of the large lakes in the region) and on a rare clear day you can see nice views of the mountains. For the last week I have been taking thanka painting lessons. For five hours a day, I sit with my teacher listening to his mix of 70’s disco music and Hawaiin tunes and try to internalize a basic understanding of the very complicated and nuanced style of art which masters generally spend their whole lives perfecting. I only have time to give it a week, though.
Aside from thanka lessons and a few side trips to the hills, there is not much to do during monsoon season in Pokhara except eat, read, and walk around interacting with the touts. I am so thankful for the hawkers who spend their lives enticing tourists to buy souvenirs, food, and illicit drugs. My favorite by far are the hashish sellers whose persistence, despite my non reception, never fails to crack me up. They are not the intimidating Hollywood drug dealer type, but instead are generally teenaged kids, sometimes wearing torn Shakira t-shirts, whose intent is written on their forehead.
I now take any opportunity to mess with them.
When I see of the sellers approaching me, I try to spout the typical opening line before they can: “Namaste! You want hashish?” I ask as fast as I can. This usually stops them in their tracks and produces a laugh, or at least a stutter. The best part is whatever line they can come up with next. So far, the best follow up line I have heard is, “What do you mean? I am a trekking guide. You want to go trekking? … … … If you want, I also have good smoke.” These guys, along with the barbershop touts, who I use the same gig on, consistently provide me with a good laugh.
I would keep writing, but the internet is less dependable than the ATMs (this is also the explanation for the lack of photos. My apologies to the Queen.)
So, without further ado.
August 13, 2009
I have officially passed the half way point of my trip, and like a good all-you-can-eat buffet, it’s only once you are “half way” done that things start to get interesting.
So, I present to you a buffet of interesting things I have done recently.
Royal Chitwan National Park:
It was time to leave the horn-honking capital of the world, Kathmandu, and venture south to the Royal Chitwan National Park, located in the Terai region of Nepal. In the eyes of devout Nepal tourists (whose bible is the Lonely Planet guide book) there are certain things one must do in order to have “done” Chitwan properly. To receive your Chitwan Boy Scout Badge, you must visit the elephant breeding center, go on a canoe ride, take a jungle walk, see elephants being bathed, ride an elephant, and see a cultural dance show. If you miss even one of these attractions, then “ooooh boy, you missed out on the beeest part, what a shame, you are going to burn for eternity, blah blah blah.” Lucky for me, and my soul, I did all of the above… PLUS MORE! (I got sick and lost my voice.)
The elephant breeding center is accessible only by canoe, and one must walk through a field of grazing water buffalo who seem less interested in you, and more interested in their grassy meal which is growing out of a perpetually replenished supply of fecal waste. Before seeing the elephants, we took a brief visit to the center’s museum which proudly displays an elephant skull (~ In the 80s, the elephants tried to unionize, so a park ranger cut off the biggest elephant’s head ~) as well as a photograph of a man riding an elephant, as the elephant rides another elephant. Unfortunately, the breeding center itself is not nearly as exciting as the museum makes it out to be. There are a number of mother elephants chained to posts (they sometimes receive congenial vists by a male elephant from the forest) surrounded by a baby elephants who run around freely and are harassed by camera-touting tourists, like yours truly.
We took a canoe ride down the Rapti River in a handmade canoe (because footmade canoes do not exist) and along the way we saw many exotic winged-creatures, called birds, as well as a really nasty-looking crocodile called a Marsh Mugger. Interestingly, the British borrowed the word ‘mugger’ after seeing Marsh Muggers in India drag villagers into the water. I know this because the crocodiles are really proud and tell everyone.
After the canoe ride ended, the jungle walk began. Before entering the jungle, we were given a preparatory speech about how to handle the wild animals if we come face-to-face with them. The advice ranged from the cowardly (“if you see a tiger, scream”) to the more cowardly (“if you see an elephant, run.”) I was interested to learn that rhinos can run 40 km/h, so “if you see a rhino, run 41 km/h.” Unfortunately, the only wildlife we saw were thousands of little red beetles which scurry around everywhere, and only pose a threat during hunting season when they carry shotguns.
Halfway through the jungle walk, which had less wildlife than my hotel room, we were engulfed in a monsoon rain. I threw my camera into a ziplock bag, and spent the next hour walk-swimming (kind of like the exercises you see 80-year-olds doing in public pools.) There was a bottle neck of stranded tourist groups on the bank of the river, waiting to be rescued by canoes. There were some characters moaning things like, “I can’t believe how wet I am,” and “I’ve never been so wet before in my life.” These fools have obviously never bathed properly. To be honest, as long as my camera was safe, I did not mind the rain. I prefer rain to be falling out of the sky, then say, forks or tasers.
All I will say about “elephant bathing” is that it should be renamed, “pay to be tossed off of an elephant’s back, as onlookers laugh with glee.” I was one of the ones laughing with glee.
When I was in Kenya, I did a safari in a jeep. Today, I can say I have also done a safari on the back of an elephant. Hell, I may even put it on my resume. Essentially, a bunch of tourists come together, and divide up into groups of four. Big elephants come out, with their driver sitting on their neck (commanding the elephants by speaking some sort of cryptic elephant language, pushing the elephants ears with their feet, and conking the elephants on the head with a big stick. Seriously. Our driver was able to navigate the elephant, tell the elephant to knock down trees, command the elephant to run…), and the four tourists cram into a little box on the elephants back. While sitting in a small box, strapped to a bouncing elephants back, with three other people was not very comfortable, I cannot imagine that having a box strapped to my back, with four people in it, and a guy sitting on my neck kicking my ears and hitting me on the head with a stick, would be a prance through Happyland, either. Yet, it was a fun trip. We saw some rhinos, who we succeeded in scaring the hell out of by surrounding them with four to seven elephants, and sixteen to twenty-eight camera-strapped tourists. Supposedly there was a tiger, too. All I saw was a pair of legs, which looked like a deer, slipping into the forest. It could have been Dolly Parton for all I know.
As for the cultural dance show… We watched traditional Tharu dances, which were entertaining. We clapped. Some tourists were invited onto the stage to flop around like nearly-asphyxiated fish.
Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha:
After Chitwan, I ventured west to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. I would have expected Lumbini to be more of a tourist attraction, but on the two buses from Chitwan, there was only one other tourist and the rest were local people just riding the bus, as local people will do. On the first bus, a man brought on three crates of baby chickens. Just riding the bus, as baby chickens will do. On the second bus, there was no room inside, so I rode on top of the bus and worked on my gripping abilities. This experience reminded me that in life, we seldom ride “on” the bus (or “on” the airplane for that matter. As George Carlin said, “let Evil Knievel ride on the plane, I am riding in the plane. There seems to be a little less wind in here.)
I was also surprised to find that aside from the massive park containing the Maya Devi Temple (the birthplace of the Buddha), as well as many beautifully ornate monasteries, there is not much to see, or do, in Lumbini. However, I gather from the stares I receive, that the circus is in town.
It is said that Maya Devi, a princess from Devdaha and the soon-to-be Buddha’s mother, had a dream about an elephant and upon waking, took a bath in a pond. She came out of the pond and began to feel labor pains. As she gripped a sal tree, she gave birth to Gautama Siddhartha, who would later become the Buddha. After entering the world, the Buddha took seven steps (each producing a lotus flower) and uttered something profound. Ironically, the birth of the Buddha was very similar to my own, except my mother spent the night before the birth sleeping in a bed covered in sandbox sand, and after I was born, I just screamed. Maybe I was preparing for the tigers I would meet some day on a jungle walk.
Anyways, I woke up early one morning, rented a “bicycle” (calling that death trap a bicycle is like calling Laffy-Taffy a suspension bridge), and spent four hours riding around the massive complex (a park with many temples/monasteries, a central canal, a crane sanctuary.) Most of the monasteries are really quite amazing, and my descriptions cannot do the architectural beauty justice, so please look at the pictures.
It is hot in Lumbini, and when I say that I sweated during my tour of the area, I mean I SWEATED. I was riding over fairly flat ground the whole time, but the heat had me producing enough salt water to soak all of the karpas at all of the Passover seders in Brooklyn. This was a sweat which would make even Lance Armstrong call it quits. I would say that I have never sweated so much before in my life, but one flashback to running the mile in elementary school P.E. would disprove that statment. There is a chance that the immense loss of water would have killed me, seeing as the opportunity to buy clean water was far and nill, yet thanks to two wells, one generous janitor, and my SteriPen, I am alive.
A final thought for all of you unemployed folks who have too much internet-browsing time on your hands (or is it the employed who spend too much time browsing the internet? Another case for the Boxcar Kids to solve….) I have enjoyed my time outside of Kathmandu, as I am meeting many fellow tourists. While in Kathmandu, I primarily spent time with Nepalis, so have had very little opportunity to swap stories with my fellow traveler (or culture-destroyer, depending on who you ask.) In Chitwan, I braved the jungle with a Spanish teacher from Chicago, an Indian whom everyone confuses for a South American, and a Serbian girl whose name sounded like “dragon.” Coming to Lumbini, I traveled with an Indian-born woman who has a very philosophical tongue, and an eye for architecture. Never before have a heard so much disdain for concrete. I also met a pair of travelers who spend half the year working and half the year traveling on pennies.
I am in an internet cafe in a town called Tansen. They are blasting Creed over the speakers… a sure sign it is time to sign out.
Tomorrow to Pokhara…
August 13, 2009
A is for Anarchy. As in, “I miss you, Anarchy,” a message I saw painted on the back of a public bus.
B is for Bollywood, which has destroyed the made-for-TV movie genre.
C is for children, of which I will have none, if I have to endure one more bumpy mountain ride on the back of a motorbike.
D is for Dog, the word suggested to me by Sabindra and Sundesh, Shyam’s sons, when I asked for a “D” word which is applicable to Nepal. (…because ‘there are dogs in Nepal.’)
E is for Eyes, where my Dr Bronner’s high concentration, Magic All-One! soap situated itself last week.
F is for Five, the number of hours it took to regain full sight in my left eye after the Dr. Bronner’s incident
G is for Good learning experience. Which is the best way to describe this trip. Instead of 24/7, boogie-boogie, big fun time all the time, I am realizing that trips like this are more of a chance for receiving a strange, yet valuable, education which I would be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.
H is for Heartburn. Which reminds us that eating curry everyday for breakfast and dinner may be why Asia suffers from so many gastrointestinal problems.
I is for Inexpensive, as in “Wow, that bootleg “Everybody Loves Raymond” DVD box set sure is inexpensive!”
J is for “Jesus, that’s a big statue of Buddha.”
K is for Keebler elf, another possible accomplice in the theft of my cell phone.
L is for the Laughs I receive when I introduce myself as Jody. “Jodi” means ‘couple’ or ‘pair’ in Nepali, and “Jodi Number One” is a popular brand of condoms.
M is for the Monsoon rain, which has contributed greatly to my clothes smelling like ten-day-old wet towel.
N is for Norway, the only country beginning with “N” that I can think of at the moment.
O is for Orthopedic surgeon, who I will be making a close aquaintance of mine, after I have repeatedly crunched my 6’2″ frame into buses made for a 5′ demographic.
P is for a Pogo stick, because the longer I don’t have one, the more I think I need one.
Q is for Quietly, which is how I sit when in a room full of non-English speaking Nepalis (or a pack of tigers.)
R is for Rakshi, the brother of moonshine and the cousin of propane, which would be better suited as a medical sterilizer than as a beverage.
S is for Squat toilets, the reason why the British never colonized Nepal.
T is for Two, the number of times I got lost using public transportation last Thursday,
U is for the Universal language of children worldwide: “Please, one sweet?” As an extended hand reaches out longingly for candy.
V is for “Vvvvvvvvvvvvv!” the sound a mosquito makes in the middle of the night, moments before it meets its creator, by way of my hands.
W is for Water blisters, the strange bumps I have only on one finger, allegedly from bacteria in the water.
X is for Xtremely challenging, which is what finding an applicable word beginning with “x” (aside from xenophobia and Xavier College.)
Z is for Zoo, where I learned that if you tease the animals, a flying elephant will make you bleed.
This blog post is in memory of my Dr. Bronner’s Magic All-One! soap, which in a rare shower tragedy, slipped from my hands and crashed to the floor, and in the process emptied itself down the drain.
For those of you who have ever relied upon Dr. Bronner’s for your hair, body, teeth, clothes, and dinnerware cleansing during your travels, you can surely realize what a disasterous blow this has been to my Summer 2009 Nepal Excursion.