Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hotels in India

I've had a request for some info about these, so I started taking pictures.

Zero dollars (your donation): At the Vipassana retreat center in Dehradun. Two beds. Attached bathroom with spiders. Wake up call at 4:30am. If you're here for a retreat, you're probably not fussed about these things.

Also zero dollars (or by donation): the Golden Temple in Amritsar. An adventure.

Also zero dollars: Mr. Singh's guesthouse in Amritsar. Had a swimming pool and free dance shows, took an hour to get to town, and had running water sometimes.

Four dollars. Haldwani. Well, it was late, and this room was indoors. Even had a (filthy) attached bathroom. One roach sighted.

Six dollars: Mahendranagar, Nepal. Again, just a place to exist for a few hours. No bugs!

Six dollars: Bhojbasa, Gangotri, Uttarakhand, India. Almost froze for eighteen hours and developed a weird scratch/rash (that thankfully just went away), but it included meals and a wonderful sunrise.

Seven dollars: Hotel Divya in Rishikesh. Functional and clean, big building so I didn't meet anyone there, but it worked.

Ten dollars: Tansen, Nepal, at the Gauri Shankar guest house. There may have been a little bit of inflation, as it was the one place that every guidebook and person pointed us to. Low on amenities, no hot water, but clean and central.

Ten dollars: Mandap Hotel in Pokhara. There are four thousand hotels in Pokhara, and they all cost $10. Shop around, and push back on "service charges". It had wifi (like all of Pokhara), the showers were hot sometimes (never sure when), and it wasn't very conducive to meeting people.

Ten dollars: one hotel in Nainital that was kind of chilly and had a couple of spiders.
Twelve dollars: another hotel in Nainital that was better but had no windows.

Sixteen dollars: Sunflower Guest House in Kolkata. Though it's listed as $15 on their website; haggle. A basic but clean room with hot water (out of the faucet, not the shower, so you have to bucket it), and I've only spotted two tiny roaches in four days. I think that's good enough. The place is surrounded by other hotels that cost less, but I was a bit scared coming into Kolkata, as the only comment I'd heard about Kolkata lodging was "I got bedbugs."

Also sixteen dollars: house boat in Kashmir. *sigh* Kashmir! What is wrong with this place. So the price was quoted to me on the phone (reluctantly) as $10-20. I thought that meant $10 without meals or $20 with. But then I was rather forcefully served meals. So when I went to pay, I figured I'd pay somewhere between 10 and 20. But then this guy tried to tell me $10 was for the other boat, and this boat was $30. Or $50. Or something. I got him down to $16, and he said "are you happy with this price?" and I said sure. Note: "are you happy with this price?" means "I am taking you so hard that I actually feel kind of bad", and therefore the answer is always no.

Eighteen dollars: Revolver guest house in Darjeeling. It's Beatles themed. Dad will be sorry to know that my room was "Paul". It was also maybe 50 degrees at night: Darjeeling is not a town of widespread central heating. But the folks at Revolver tried their best with an electric blanket, heavy other blankets, and a kerosene space heater if you want.

Twenty dollars: I think that was their recommended donation at the Santosh Puri Ashram near Haridwar. Included meals, tea, a beautiful garden and all, daily puja services and yoga classes, and internet in the library. Bathroom next door.

Two hundred and forty dollars: all manner of nice places in Bhutan!

What have I learned from this?

  • it is hard to look at a room and tell, on the spot, whether it's good enough, because there are so many things you have to remember. It would be useful to develop a checklist of what I need in a room. It'd be something like this, in order from most to least important: no bugs, clean looking (to increase likelihood of no bugs), running water, friendly/haimish, good location, hot water (if in a cold location), wi-fi, towel, laundry service. And I'd draw the line after "running water". But then, there are always surprises: is it good enough if it has all those things but also a big hole to the outside in the bathroom wall?
  • Haimishness is a very hard quality to determine. Things that help include a nice communal area that people actually want to hang out in, low price (meaning more backpackers who want to meet up), general comfort, friendly hosts, and a good number of rooms but not too many. Siddharth Guest House in Dharamsala and the Gangs-Shun Homestay in Leh spring to mind as good examples. Revolver had the ingredients to be haimish (central room with the only wi-fi connection), but only 5 rooms, so nobody was ever around. The Santosh Puri ashram was pretty haimish; sometimes people didn't leave all day. The Sunflower, Mandap, and my hotels in Bhutan were not at all haimish, nor were the junky spots in Haldwani or Mahendranagar. Maybe haimishness clusters at the center of the price range. But either way, it's really hard to tell, whether you book online (look at photos I guess?), on the phone ("um, is your hotel friendly?"), or in person (unless you see a bunch of folks hanging around). Someone should make a list of friendly hotels. Cancel that; hotel reviews should say how friendly the place is.
  • I think $10 is the knee of the curve, amenities-wise. You don't gain much by going above $10, until you go way above $10. But you gain a lot as you get up to $10.
  • That said, prices go up in big cities and some resort towns.
EDIT: comments disabled due to spammers.

Monday, November 28, 2011

No excess luxury, no excess hardship

That's been my motto so far, in life in general but particularly in traveling. If I blew through savings a little more, I could live like a bit of a king here in India. Or, I could do as some hardcore folks I've met have done, and scrape by on $4/day or arrive in India with $130 to my name.

But excess luxury, in addition to eating your money faster, makes things less Haimish. (more) (and a lot of thoughts about this; maybe I'll post more later.) And excess hardship, in addition to being difficult, feels pretentious, like slumming.

Among backpackers/young travelers, I notice a lot of scorn for excess luxury, but not much scorn, and indeed some admiration, for excess hardship. There's this idea that suffering will lead to a more rewarding experience, or a more "real" one, or something. I mean, it can, right, but it doesn't necessarily. "I sometimes wonder if it's necessary to admire such self-punishers as... the average mountaineer or Vendee Cup entrant." I am right near a lot of places I could sleep for under $5. But then if I got bedbugs because I didn't want to splurge for the $15 place that I'm currently in, I don't think it'd be rewarding or enriching. (I could be wrong. And I'm not being sarcstic.)

Here's another option: admire travelers if they're doing a very meaningful trip, not a very difficult one. I know a guy who's on a quest around the world to eventually meet this counter-cultural French filmmaker in Paris. That's cool. I know a guy who just biked from England to Nepal. That's cool too. But it's not because he suffered a lot along the way; it's because he must have really wanted to make this trip, and really enjoyed it, to deal with all that suffering along the way.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Yeah, okay, Gorkhaland, that actually makes pretty good sense.

I've spent the last five days in Darjeeling and Kalimpong, a couple of towns up in northern West Bengal. West Bengal is a big state that also includes Kolkata. But these hilly places up north feel more like Nepal than India. For example, when you walk past a taxi driver, and he says "Hello, taxi?" and you say "No thanks", the conversation ends there. Also, momos everywhere.

So the local people, a mix of Nepali, Bhutanese, Sikkimese (Sikkim is a tiny Indian state just north of Darjeeling), and Indians, form this mix that's sort of Indian, but really not very West-Bengali at all. And they want to become an independent state, called Gorkhaland. Now it's kind of low-key, you just see some signs around, but I guess they had serious protests a couple years ago.

Anyway, I liked it. It was freezing cold at night (50 degrees inside), but I liked it. I'm developing a medium-to-strong preference for mountains over flat places in India, cold places over hot places, and small cities over big cities, so long as they're big enough to have some culture (read: something to do).

You may know it for the tea. They have like 84 tea plantations. I got to tour one; here is some tea drying.

There is a zoo that is actually pretty good. It has red pandas. These are the cutest dudes ever. There's an attached mountaineering museum that I had to flee because a couple schoolkids asked me for a photo, and soon I was swarmed by the whole class. Nevertheless, the museum was neat: stuff from Everest and Makalu exhibitions, and the grave of Tenzing Norgay (along with Edmund Hillary, first to climb Everest).

And a "moon bear". This guy has a double chin.

There is also a "toy train". Technically it runs all the way to Siliguri, about 70km away, but it's dang slow, so the thing to do is a "joy ride"- a 7km round trip in two hours. It's a pretty ride, and it's kind of neat because it's a still-running steam train.

Anyway, yeah, Darjeeling, good place. I guess there are some arts going on too, and a coffeeshop/gallery that I could never quite find, and some cool hotels (mine was called "Revolver", it was Beatles themed, and it was great), and exactly one pub ("Joey's Pub"). The latter is perfect, because it means if you want to go meet some other travelers (or otherwise-unoccupied Indians), there is one place to go.

Kalimpong was nice but uneventful. I met up with a friend of a friend named Bappa, and he took me around the city for an evening and a morning. It's small; good for nature or something, not a lot to do. Bappa was a cool guy though. We drank Nepali beer and listened to American music in a Chinese restaurant called "King Thai". We met one of his friends, who runs Kalimpong Tours & Travels (kalimpongtravels at yahoo) and he seemed pretty honest, so there's a recommendation for you.

In other news, I continue to grow a moustache. I've got a "worst moustache" competition with Rob going, and I guess a "best moustache" one going with my dad; I'm pretty sure I've got a lock on one of those. So if you want, feel free to donate. It makes my hair grow faster.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Orange Picko

(My current couple days: Darjeeling->Kalimpong->New Jalpaiguri (now)->Kolkata (overnight train). I'll get back to the photos soon enough, but I haven't been able to connect my computer to some fast internet.)

Travel is full of so many absolutely perfect moments. Not in that they're super fun or exciting or feel-good, but in that they feel like scenes from a particularly well-directed movie.

So I'm in Darjeeling, and Darjeeling tea, right? so I'm going to visit a tea plantation. The closest one to town seems to be "Happy Valley Tea Plantation" so I follow the road until I think I find it, walk down an unofficial-looking path, and meet an unofficial-looking oldish Indian lady. She asks if I'm here to learn about tea. Well, sure, I guess. I walk with her and her young daughters to her house. I ask how old her daughters are, just to make conversation, and she says "14. Too young." which makes no sense because there are two of them, the older one is eight years old, tops, and too young for what? This gives you an idea of how much language barrier we're dealing with.

She sits me down in a room filled with antique furniture, stuffed animals, and my god wall to wall kitsch. I think she doesn't know Precious Moments dolls exist, because if she did, there'd be an infestation. She sets out some dry loose teas and gives her little sales pitch. This is not without some charm: lines like "What makes Happy Valley tea the best? It's the Happy." are delivered with a little gleam in her eye, like she really believes it. It's quite cute, really.

After a while, she goes into the specifics of Darjeeling tea, which is really what I'm there for. With some relish, she explains the beloved SFTGFOP1 acronym, starting with a singsong recitation: "Super fine tippy golden flowery orange pekoe, number 1!" and continuing: "S is for super, because it's picked in the first time of the year." False, this term is "first flush." "F is for flowering, because the tea flower is in there also." False, I think. Wait, where did "fine" go? "T for tippy!" pointing to the tip of the leaf. "G is for golden, because the tea is golden." Maybe. "F for flowering," (again) "and O for orange, because the tea is orange." False; check wikipedia if you're interested. "and P for picko. Because we're picking the leaves!" I don't even know what "pekoe" means, but it's not that.

At this point, three Argentinian backpackers walk in. She directs them to seats, motioning one to a chair that's already occupied by a giant pink teddy bear: "You sit there, with Pinky." They just want to drink a cup of famous Darjeeling tea. After finding out that she's charging fifty entire rupees ($1) for the tea and the lesson, and looking askance at me sipping said tea, they mumble among themselves, make some noise about how that's too expensive, and walk out.

There's an uncomfortable silence, because these cheap bastards just walked out on one of those experiences that you don't walk out on for a damn dollar. Sure, she was selling us something, but she invited us into her home, and you're going to get a good cup of tea, and I mean you got to sit with Pinky-- anyway, she and I sit looking not at each other, sort of avoiding eye contact, and then she turns to me with a sad smile and delivers the line that made my whole week:

"You know, they just don't know quality."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

About Gross National Happiness

Bhutan famously has a policy of "Gross National Happiness", meaning that they aim to maximize happiness instead of profit/GDP. How well does this work?

Well, right now, it's pretty good. Bhutan seems to be doing well. They have low (nonexistent) crime, 100% hydro power, low pollution, pretty good education I think. Tourism is pulling in some decent money, but it's not swallowing their culture. I asked a couple Bhutanese folks "what are the big problems you see facing Bhutan?" and they said "well, the roads are not very good."

But then, they only have 700,000 people. It's easy to avoid all the problems that come from too many people when you don't have too many people.

Some of the policies they've implemented are promising: the sustainable and clean hydro power, the cultural survival (folks still wear the national gho/kira clothing widely, buildings look good), the resistance of tobacco (sale is allowed but highly taxed, smoking in public is officially prohibited). Some of the policies seem immature: they don't have any slaughterhouses in the country, so they import their meat. It's on the way to sustainable vegetarianism, I guess, but it's kind of a weak philosophical dodge. And some of their problems are probably just hidden from me. I read Beyond the Sky and the Earth, in which the author describes her life in a rural Bhutanese village, and it's worlds away from Thimphu: tapeworm and giardia, clashes with ethnic Nepalese and widespread sexism.

So I guess (in my humble expert political opinion) I'd look at Bhutan the same way I'd look at a startup with a motto of "Don't be evil": it's untested and not guaranteed, but has as good a chance as any to succeed.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bhutanese Food

Bhutan's mountainous, so their food is meaty. There are potatoes and cheese too. But the distinctive part is the chilies. There are chilies in everything. They're not super spicy, as hot peppers go, but they're ubiquitous. Their most famous dish, Ema Datsi, is just chilies in cheese. I've had meals of ema datsi, beef with chilies and cheese, pork with radish and chilies, soup with chilies, and pickled chili paste on the side.

If that sounds terrible, never fear, and if that sounds great, read on. The trick about Bhutanese food is that you won't get any by default. For each meal, you're herded into the tourist room, and all you white people are served a sumptuous buffet of vaguely-Asian dishes. Stir fried vegetables, some beef or chicken, noodles, maybe fried rice or momos. Meanwhile, your guide and driver are in the other room, eating their everyday (delicious) Bhutanese food! I guess they figure that tourists will want the more familiar stuff. So the secret is, if you want Bhutanese food, ask your guide if you can eat with them. It's an unusual request, I guess, so be very clear ("yes, I actually do want to eat Bhutanese food, like the kind you're eating, and yes, I like spicy food"), and they'll let you. It's more fun too, especially if you're alone. Eating alone in an empty room is weird.

Anyway, more about the food: they sometimes drink butter tea, like the Tibetans, and sometimes buttermilk (whey). They eat a lot of red rice, which is short grain and only a little sticky. They use the whole animal: dishes like pigs' feet show up sometimes. Dried meat and dried fish are popular as well. And they eat a lot. "We Bhutanese are good in eating! Not so good in working," laughed one guide. I have to disagree about the working, but it's true that I often found myself quite stuffed.

Bhutan part 2: more than just gurus and flying tigers

After my five days in Bhutan, I was as exhausted as my bank account. Sightseeing in the mornings, traveling in the afternoons, and then whatever we wished in the evenings.

First, the sightseeing: alternately awesome and kind of boring. As usual. I always forget this about traveling, but sightseeing is great if you're already interested in what you're seeing, but if not, you may spend time trying to convince yourself that you're interested in things, which is a bit painful. Nevertheless, I'm glad we did all that sightseeing, because if I'm in Bhutan for 120 hours, I want to see as much as possible, and some sites ended up being unexpectedly cool.

For example: the National Library (shelves and shelves of Buddhist prayer scrolls, and the world's biggest book), the Takin Sanctuary (odd looking beasts), Chhimi Lakhang (fertility temple, with strange blessings, more on that later), and the 108 Chortens (cool atmosphere, especially in the fog).
The world's biggest book is just called "Bhutan".

According to legend, "Divine Madman" Drukpa Kunley ate a goat and a cow, and then stuck the goat's head on the cow's body, creating the Takin.

I guess Chorten is a synonym for Stupa. This is the Bhutanese style.

Some other sites we saw: Drukgyel Dzong, the National Memorial Chorten, a big Buddha on a hill, Kyichu Lakhang, and the huge Punakha Dzong.
Punakha: former capital of Bhutan! The Bhutanese royal wedding happened there just last month!

Second, traveling: longer than it seems. We drove only about 3 hours per day, but as Bhutan is all valleys connected by mountain passes, it's mostly winding mountain roads. And I guess driving at night is rather unsafe, so we arrived at the next day's destination every day at around 3.

Thought About Bhutan Tourism #1: their tourism industry is geared for old people and group tours. I guess if you sightsee in the morning, drive until 3:00, then you're done for the day. But it left us time for...

Third, the evenings: so, I don't know what to do in the evening in Bhutan. Hell, I don't know what to do in the evening anywhere. Especially if there's someone else trying to make sure that I'm having a good time. I mean, I like to walk around cities, and I like to read books. Luckily, RK (my guide) knows people everywhere. In Paro we played snooker; in Punakha we played snooker, had some drinks, and went dancing until the club closed at midnight; and in Phuentsholing we celebrated his cousin's birthday (including some snooker).

Which brings me to Thought About Bhutan Tourism #2: their tourism industry is geared for old people, but it's actually a great place for young people to travel (... if you can afford it). Your guide will probably be a young guy, so you'll be able to relate a bit. And if he's as cool as RK, he may welcome you into his social life for a few days. I met a few of his friends, lost a lot of snooker, had some good conversations, and (of course) will remember them much longer than I remember the chortens and dzongs.

Finally, a couple more photos of interest:


To quote RK, "Well, there's a lot of dicks there." I guess Drukpa Kunley's symbol is, well, a dick, so people paint them on their houses to invoke his protection.

We stayed one night at a hotel at Dochula pass. Awesome views. (but 10,000 ft, and I got a little altitude-sick.)
Almost forgot about the plane ride from Kathmandu to Paro. Not too often can you look out your window and see Himalayas. (and our propeller, which apparently works by hurling boomerangs at the ground. camera tricks!)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bhutan part 1, or, I could call you from India for an entire day and I'd still spend less than I am spending here but I think it's worth it

Bhutan costs $240/day. $200 plus $40 extra because I'm alone. That's $10/hour, or about 16 cents per minute I am alive in Bhutan. Most fellow travelers have viewed me with a mixture of confusion, awe, and backpacker scorn (as they could live for a month on $240) when I told them I'm going to Bhutan. It's about as opposite of Thamel as you can get while still being 7000 feet above sea level.

I hate to lead off talking about money, but it really shapes the experience here. $200/day is mandatory for everyone, but for that $200, they put you up in style. This place feels like it is my own private resort. It smells sweet like the Rockies, but there are even fewer cars on the road. I, however, have a car and a driver AND a guide. The mattresses are a good six inches thick and I have not one but two towels. When it's mealtime, they bring out like 8 plates of food, not at all expecting us to come close to finishing them.

Yeah, it's pretty weird. Not just because I'm a kid who doesn't require or deserve this luxury, or because I feel like I really have to make every minute count, but also because what the hell can my guide and I talk about all day? I can't be together with my best friends 24/7, let alone a relative stranger.

However, it's also pretty awesome. My guide is cool: he's a 24 year old named Rinchen (goes by "R.K."), so we can kind of get along and understand each other a bit, despite the dual weirdnesses of being from another country and me hiring him. Last night in Paro we had a beer with his friend and went to play snooker.

Side note: snooker is like pool for masochists. First, the table is about 14 times the size. There are 7 colored balls and 15 red ones, and your job is to pocket a red ball (1 point), and then on your next shot, pocket a colored ball for more points. However, there are numerous penalties. Pocket the cue ball: minus four. Miss all the balls: minus four. Hit (or pocket) a colored ball first before pocketing a red ball: minus at least four. Hit or pocket a ball you weren't aiming for: minus, again, at least four. Oh, and if you mess up, your fellow players can decide to let you "try again", for a chance to lose four more points. I think I finished one game at -33.

And today, we went to Taktsang, the Tiger's Nest, the coolest monastery ever. Halfway-around-the-world mission accomplished!

It's a hike to get there, about 2-3 hours and 2400 feet uphill. In a land that costs $200/day, there are still a handful of tourists flocking to this Tiger's Nest, but they are all older and richer than I, so I savored for once being the fittest guy on the trail. Well, besides R.K., of course, who set a blazing pace. Anyway, enough talk, more photos.

R.K. and me

Guru Rinpoche (aka Padmasambhava) flew to the cave at Taktsang on the back of a tiger, hence the name. Here, a descendant of that tiger?

I'm in Thimphu now, the capital and biggest city, with 200,000 people. ("2 million", in Bhutanese terms. Bhutanese "million" = Indian lakh = 100,000) It's thoroughly pleasant! The buildings all look super nice, in a traditional Bhutanese way. It's clean. The only ugly things are international, like the few gas stations. Bhutanese speak excellent English. And, importantly, coffeeshops abound. Sadly, I won't have a chance to settle in and hang out here, because being in Bhutan is more expensive than a 24/7 Thai massage.

Nepali food

... is great. I was surprised; I didn't know there was much to it. It's often sold as "daal bhat", which means you get rice and some stuff, like an Indian thali. That "stuff" can just be some spinach, some dal, and some vegetable curry, but that "stuff" can also be quite complex:

- Alu tusi achaar, a "salad" that looked to me more like potatoes and cucumbers in a yogurt sauce. I love yogurt sauces.
- Alu chhwon, a soupy thing with potatoes
- Gundruk achaar, a fermented spinach pickle
- Sandeko, a generic term that means something like "spicy", so you could get "bhatmas sandeko" (spicy beans), or chickpeas or potatoes or meat
- Dhindo/Dhedo, a buckwheat paste/dough that replaces your rice, looks like hell, and tastes great.

I think the first couple dishes are more Newari style, the last couple more Thakali style, where I think Newari and Thakali are popular sub-regions of Nepali food. Anyway, it all tends to be spicy, sometimes sour, and generally healthy tasting. I very much want to make some of it.

A personal connection is worth a lot

Couchsurfing is occasionally a little awkward, occasionally frustrating, but often it opens doors you couldn't find otherwise.

A guy named Kamal messaged me out of the blue when he saw that I'd logged in from Nepal. He offered to meet me and show me the orphanage that he started. A couple other guys had made similar offers, but he seemed the most reasonable.

Aside: there's this weird phenomenon where people from other countries just... do the internet differently. I mean, my friend Flora borrowed my computer to log in to Facebook, and when she went to Facebook, of course I was already logged in, and the first thing on my news feed was a post from an Indian guy I'd met once: a fashion photo of a guy in his underwear. I mean, okay. Or another guy I met once posted on my wall a series of photos entitled "LIVE LIKE A LEGEND AND DIE LIKE A WARRIOR". This isn't even a language barrier issue, it's just... y'know, lengthy disclaimer about cultural relativism and all, but some people do the internet wrong.

Anyway, Kamal seemed like a good guy, and so Flora and I met up with him, and made a plan to see his orphanage later that day. We took a taxi to the outskirts of town, then took his motorcycle from there (3 on a motorcycle is illegal within the city). We ended up at a big manor-like house in a quite pretty suburbanish setting.

The only photo I thought to take before it got dark

It's a nice house, but just big enough for hostel-dorm-style bunkbed housing for the 35 kids who live there. There's an outdoor picnic table area for eating and studying, a kitchen, a couple extra rooms for Kamal and his wife, an office, and a room for volunteers. It's a squeeze, but it fits. Kamal explained that they had only 22 kids, but then his brother (who was also running an orphanage) died, and his orphanage's 13 kids had nowhere to go, so Kamal took them on too.

Worse, their place is a year into a non-extendable 3-year lease. After that, Kamal shrugged, they have to move. (y'know, to another 35-person house.) Furthermore, the kids are each supported by $250/year donors, but as they enter college, costs go way up. So of course they're raising money for everything: money for the kids who are going to college, money for general day to day expenses, and $75k for a permanent building. They're selling personalized bricks at $75 each to donors, which seems like not a bad plan.

So, okay, so I met them. And of course I'd like to do something. I don't know what, right now, so it's a little confusing. But making this connection is a start, I think. Now, if I want to go volunteer in a Nepali orphanage for a day/week/month sometime, I can call them up. If I have a few extra bucks, I can buy a brick. If I want to organize a drive for donations, I know exactly where the money would be going, instead of throwing cash at a big organization.

Furthermore, if you want to do any of these things, well, now you can too. You and I both have a connection to an organization that's not big and bureaucratic, and not actually some scam by a shady guy in a back alley. It's a start.

Oh, and here they are.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I might be going off the grid again.

Tomorrow I head to Bhutan for 5 days, Nov. 14-18. I don't know what my internet situation will be like, but I imagine it'll be sparse, as the Internet was only introduced in 1999. Catch you on the 19th!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

I'm feeling rejuvenated in Kathmandu and I think it's the big city effect

I heard a great talk by Ethan Zuckerman at CHI 2011 which touched on the benefits of cities. He talked about how in Industrial Revolution England, people flocked to the cities even though life was terribly short (life expectancy something stupid like 28) and generally terrible. Why would they give up their country lives for the disease, starvation, and grinding industrial awfulness of the city? Because it kept them from being bored.

Yes, I'm back in a big city, and it is not boring! Not that I've been particularly bored staring at mountain lakes or the Himalayas. But there's so much more to do in a big city, stuff beyond the six sites that the Indian Tourism Board has declared are worth doing. There's enough to do that I can decide what I want to do and then go do it. People to meet. Places to go. Famous things to scoff at.

Durbar Square

Boudhnath Stupa

I only have had two days here, and today I am visiting the orphanage run by a fellow I met on Couchsurfing, so really kind of one day here.

Good things:
Bouda: the place where the stupa is. It's about 5km from the city center, but if I were to come here again, I'd stay there I think. It's Buddhist and kind of peaceful, and it has a nice european-feeling square.
Thamel: tourist central. It is easy when anything you need or want is 5 minutes away, tops. Also, there are good cafes/bars/places to hang out here. It might get old after a while, but I'm not here for a while.
Paknajol: where I'm staying, one street away from Thamel, in a pretty good place called the Nirvana Peace Home. Quiet and still central.
The food: Amazing Nepali and Tibetan everywhere you look. Still gonna post about Nepali food someday.
The weather: Right now it is 60's-70's and cloudy. I guess it never gets above 90ish or below 30ish.
People: the other travelers I've met have been cool. There are at least a few active Couchsurfers here. And I don't know many Nepali people in person, but based on my interactions with them, (gross generalization warning) I find them a bit more laid back and approachable than Indians.
Overall, I think this is the first place I've been that I could actually live.

Bad things:
Pollution: Some people wear face masks; that is disconcerting.
Disconnect: This is not how Nepal is. But that's not a problem with Kathmandu. Any big city is a world apart from the poor villages around.
Traffic: Okay fine, yes indeed we are in an Asian big city.

Pashupatinath, the holiest Hindu place in Nepal. They cremate bodies here, like in Varanasi.

"Garden of Dreams"- a nice garden with a $2 entry fee. (some of the tourist sites are rather expensive.)


Asan Tole neighborhood. I heard Cat Stevens wrote "Kathmandu" around here somewhere. I imagine it has changed since his day.


Friday, November 11, 2011

David Headley and the Indian Government, you've cost me three days of my life

I want to be sure I can re-enter India after Bhutan. There's this "two-month rule" where if you exit India on a multiple-entry tourist visa, you have to wait 2 months to re-enter. Unless you're an actual tourist, in which case there's an exception, but I want to be sure.

3 PM yesterday: arrive in Kathmandu, go to Indian embassy, and I'm told it's closed. (Guru Nanak's birthday! 2% of India is Sikh. This would be like US embassies being closed on Rosh Hashanah. Whatever.)
9 AM: arrive at Indian embassy. It opens at 9:30; I am smart! ... The doors open at 8:30, and people have been lining up since 7. I am dumb.
9:15 AM: I find the right form to fill out. Needs some photocopies. I run outside to the photocopy business right there.
9:30 AM: I realize I need to take a number. The machine asks "tourist visa or transit?" Err, neither; re-entry permit. Tourist, I guess. "First visit, or have you already filled in the telex form?" Uh. I choose both. I receive numbers A48 and C37.
Notice the long time gap here. We have three queues: A, C, and F, and there is one person processing them all. This would be like 150 people showing up at a restaurant at once, and there's one waiter and one cook.
2:30 PM: C37 is called. I give him the forms and pay 900 rupees (y'know, because), and am told to return at 5 PM to pick up my passport.
5 PM: "Wait here, 15 minutes."
5:30 PM: I get my passport back, and yes, there is a stamp! "Permission is granted to re-enter India (single entry). Registration required within 14 days of arrival." Awesome. All my plans are not ruined!

Now, I wasn't actually so honked off by all this. All in all, I had a pleasant day: talked with some fellow travelers/waiters-in-line, read some of Shantaram, went to a lovely coffeeshop, and even got to explore some Kathmandu in between. But I'd like to adopt a honked-off tone for a minute to talk about terrorism.

The two-month-rule was instituted after American national David Headley did some bombs in Mumbai, after going to and from Pakistan frequently on his tourist visa. The bombs did terrible damage, to be sure! But look at this damage: I've spent at least 2 days researching and scouting around Nainital to make sure I'd be okay, and I lost today also. Three days. Plus however long it takes to register after I get back to India. How many tourists are affected by this rule? India has 5 million foreign tourists/year. Say 2% want to re-enter, so 100k re-entering tourists. Say that most are only half as anal/stupid as me, so they waste 2 days each. Indian Government, by instituting this rule, you've killed 200,000 person-days. That's ~550 person-years. ... Basically, you've wasted about seven tourists' lives. Add to that the administrative overhead, and it maybe doubles. So Headley and his goons killed 164 people, but you've added 14 more. This is not the way to fight terrorism.

Okay, that's all. Really, not a bad day. And I can sleep a little easier knowing I won't end up in Bhutan-India-border-limbo (and lose all my meeting-up-with-friends plans after Bhutan) in a week. Tomorrow, I'll go see some Kathmandu.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Beats a Pokhara in the eye

Pokhara's a fine town. It's all tourism, but that's still fine. I think it's mostly fine because the kind of tourists that go there are the ones who trek around the Annapurna circuit, so they're largely nice enough folks. I met a few single serving friends, folks I'd talk to at dinner or something, but nobody I hung out with over a couple days. I think part of that was because my guesthouse was not the most social place. (someone needs to figure out a way you can tell "how friendly" a guesthouse is, how much people hang around there. how much it's solo travelers or folks looking to meet up vs. couples/families/people who don't need any friends right now. and "go there and look at all of the guesthouses" is not an answer.)

I ate some great food. Pokhara's Lakeside is a little like Bangkok's Khao San Road: tons of tourism, insane little world apart from its enclosing country, and I want to eat everything. (and Thamel in Kathmandu is even more so.) As I've said, the Nepali coffee is good. There are two separate coffee shops that say "a proper coffee shop"; they are both great. And Nepali food is great, although that deserves another post.

I spent some time planning and some time sightseeing. I really need to remember that general sightseeing saps me fast. I can hit up maybe two, three "general interest" things in a city before I stop caring.

But anyway, I went to Devi's Falls, which is a kinda neat waterfall surrounded by way too many tacky souvenir shops.

I went to the Mountaineering Museum, which is not a very good museum. Some gear from great mountaineers, and a lot of dusty posters with too many words. Nevertheless, I love a good list, so I liked looking at lists of the tallest mountains and different ethnic groups, both inside Nepal and outside Nepal in other mountainous regions.
One ethnic group: the Pun Magar. Beej and Julie, I barely resisted emailing this to you.

No, I cannot!

Finally, and most spectacularly, I did that trip up to Sarangkot, where I didn't see any mountains, but I also went up to the World Peace Pagoda/Shanti Stupa, where I did see some mountains.

The pointiest one is Machapuchhare. I like that one.