Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Other Living Goddess

Before Nepal was unified as a single country in the eighteenth century, it was a collection of small kingdoms. Each palace was based around a Durbar Square, and the three in the Kathmandu Valley - Kathmandu, Bhaktepur and Patan - are impressive World Heritage Sites*.

Kathmandu's Durbar Square is teeming with ancient temples, palaces, shrines and statues... and also with pigeons and touts.  While Dave engaged a tour guide in a heated discussion about tourist guide licensing schemes (I can't make this stuff up), I wandered around, climbing steep staircases, peering behind corners, quietly observing extremely loud religious ceremonies, and hoping not to get pooped on by the millions of pigeons.
I wanted no part of this.
Ew.  I wanted no part of this, either.
This kid, however, wanted all kinds of parts of this.
So... because I refused a guide (licensed or not), I don't exactly know the name or purpose of this (or any other) structure.
Just enjoy the photos.

When I finally found Dave again, he was playing down-low-too-slow with some local kids
Besides all those buildings that I don't know the name of, Durbar Square is also home to Kumari the Living Goddess.  Although there are several Kumaris in Nepal (and in India), the Kathmandu Kumari is the most important.  Each Kumari is selected from a pool of young girls from the poor Shakya community in a highly ritualistic series of ceremonies.  Thirty-two physical attributes, from the shape of her teeth to the color of her eyes, are scrutinized.  Then, the potential Kumari is taken to a darkened courtyard full of really scary stuff - the severed heads of recently sacrificed buffalo, and dancing, menacing masked men.  A true living goddess is expected to remain calm and fearless during this ordeal.  As a final test, the Kumari must select clothing and other items worn by her predecessor from among an assortment of goods.  Once a girl has passed these tests, she is deemed the new Kumari, the living manifestation of the goddess Tuleju.  Her feet will never touch the ground outside of her palace.  She will reign until she hits puberty (or is afflicted with a serious illness or injury), and then abruptly become mortal again.  (That sucks.  I, for one, intend to remain a living goddess for the duration of my life).

Dave outside Kumari Chowk
Just to catch a glimpse of Kumari is considered to bestow extraordinary good luck.  Unfortunately, although we dropped by during visiting hours Kumari did not deign to make an appearance in a window above her courtyard.
Not that we could have documented it if she had.
Waiting (somewhat) patiently in the courtyard for the goddess who never showed.  How rude.
If you go:  Durbar Square is in easy walking distance from Thamel.  Your ticket (around $4 for foreigners) is only good for one day, but if you visit the visitor's office you can exchange it for a multi-day pass.  I've read that your passport and a passport photo is required, but we were never asked for one.

* Well, we can only assume that Patan is impressive. We got templed-out and didn't make it there.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


We've liked just about every city we've visited on the GT, even ones that other travelers had told us weren't so great.  CairoDelhiBangkok.  All of them good places.

But try as we might, we just couldn't learn to love Kathmandu.

I had always been intrigued by Kathmandu.  It seemed like such a fantastical place, so exotic, almost fake - the city you refer to when describing a place as being really, really, crazily far away.

But Kathmandu was just gross.  It was dirty, it was grey, it was rainy.  The power cuts somehow seemed so much worse than they did in Pokhara (in Kathmandu, as in most of Nepal, there were only two 4-hour blocks of power per day).  The tourist neighborhood, Thamel, is a place that has collected everything bad about backpacker/tourist areas (endless stores of junk, relentless touts) and has eliminated everything good (except for the incredibly expensive and delicious coffee at La Dolce Vita. That place saved my sanity).

The drive into Kathmandu is a real foreshadowing of what to expect from the city.  We passed fields of rubble, with smokestacks spewing thick black clouds of pollution into the atmosphere.  On our left, as we rounded a corner approaching the city, was a deep ravine full of twisted, smashed carcasses of buses just like the one in which we were riding.
Wow, I can't wait to breathe that air. 
Crossing an incredibly un-scenic river.
There was a lot of India-ness in the streets - dusty, dirty, filled with garbage, lacking in sidewalks, crammed with cars, trucks, rickshaws and motorbikes.  Maybe it was the weather that made it all seem so much worse.  Or maybe it was the fact that there was no delicious local food to ease the pain.  Either way, take a look at the photos below and decide for yourself!
Street corner.
Typical alleyway
A bright spot of color in otherwise drab surroundings.
I love how her outfit coordinates with her watermelon slice.
Sadly for them, school was open despite the strikes
There were a few charming parts of the city.
Wandering through back alleys, we discovered courtyards accessible by small, dark tunnels.
What is this, a tunnel for ants? 
A quiet alley
A bustling alley
These dogs are so flat!
I can't imagine what its like when they have to bring a piano in.
Not the most appetizing market I've ever been to
I've mentioned the strikes in Nepal a few times.  When we were there, in May, the country was constantly shut down by strikes (here's a BBC News article about it).  There was no working government.  There was no constitution.  The country was days away from running out of fuel.  There were only eight hours of electricity each day, despite "excess" power being sold to India.  People were angry and frustrated with their government and their country, and I think that feeling was palpable.  It was certainly apparent to us, as stores were often closed and private vehicles were banned in the streets.  The newspapers were filled with stories about the upcoming, and laughable, deadline for a new constitution.  A teashop owner slapped a Maoist lawmaker over the failures of the government and it was front page news for days.

Riot police on hand during one of the many strikes that shut down the city
(You'll see that there actually aren't many cars on the roads in these photos.
That's because of the strikes.  On the upside, it made it a lot safer to walk!)

All of this perhaps helps to explain our negativity towards Kathmandu.  The government was a mess, the people were unhappy - and all of that rubbed off on us.  But the next post will be much more upbeat.  Because tucked away in hose dingy alleys are ancient treasures, religious artifacts, and truly impressive temples.  

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Head in the Clouds

There are times when you overlook a country's lack of safety regulations because something is really, really cheap.  One example is almost every bus ride we've taken since we left Argentina.  Another example is eating street food in India.  In Nepal, that thing is paragliding.
That's me!
Pokhara is known as one of the best paragliding spots in the world (at least, according to the people who run the paragliding shops in Pokhara).  Something about the way the lake is surrounded by mountains, and thermal vectors and airstreams, blah blah blah.  All we knew is, paragliding sure was cheap here!  So we plunked down a credit card (so that if anything happened, Dave could call American Express customer service from his hospital bed), strapped ourselves to some British guys (who claimed they represented UK safety standards) and leaped off the side of a mountain.  Wheee!
The preparations begin
Harnessed up and ready to roll/fly
Jesse takes flight!
Foreground: Dave's chute. Background: Jesse's chute.
Woah.  We were high.
My pilot was also a certified massage therapist (trained at Wat Pho, my favorite massage place in Bangkok!)
I was sad to not have received an in-flight massage, but relieved that he did not remove his hands from the steering apparatus.
While my pilot and I were chatting about our lives, Dave and his pilot were discussing food (obviously).
Dave's pilot told him about "a great steak place" in Pokhara, where "they cook it nice and well-done."
Needless to say, we did not rush to check it out.
Yet another scenic shot
The beautiful lake from above
If you go: We went paragliding with Frontiers Paragliding, but all the places are the same price and seem about the same.  The people at Frontiers were very nice and made us feel very safe, so that's always a good thing when it comes to jumping off mountains.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Who Am I??

Happy birthday sister!!

After exercising our bodies on an eleven day trek it was time to exercise our minds.  So we and the Martens signed ourselves up for a three day Intro to Buddhism course at the Pokhara Buddhist Meditation Center.
 And wow, was it life changing!!  Here is a before-and-after photo of Dave.
Nepali Dave
Buddhist Dave
OK, not quite.  But after three days of meditation, yoga and discussion we had learned a lot about Buddhism and maybe even came away with a few ways to incorporate some of the philosophies into our own lives.
Sarah contemplates whether she can incorporate a giant prayer wheel into her new Boulder home furnishings.
The sessions with Venerable Losang Yeshe - an American monk who has been living in Nepal on and off for years - were interesting and illuminating.  Extremely well-read and knowledgeable about all religions, the monk taught us the rudiments of Buddhism and persuasively answered our many skeptical questions.  At first we thought it was odd that we wouldn't have a Nepali monk, but it quickly became clear that our Western minds could learn best from a Western teacher.
Look at the gunner!
Dave, always the teachers pet, would stick around during breaks to ask a million boring questions.
But I had a much harder time with the yoga and meditation portions of the program.  The yoga was "gentle" and I kept falling asleep while trying to do things like breathe into different parts of my ribcage, or squeeze the muscles in my ankles.  Do we even have muscles there?
The gompa was our multi-purpose yoga, meditation and learning room.
The other students always ceded the seats against the wall (for back support) to the four of us elderly folk.
Note that Dave has found himself a little stool.  He hates sitting on the floor.

And the meditation - that was the toughest part.  We were instructed to sit up straight, cross-legged, with our hands cupped in our laps, and to remain perfectly still and unmoving with our eyes closed (or nearly closed) for the next thirty minutes.  When thoughts arose we were to acknowledge and then dismiss them.  During the first session I thought I was going insane.  I kept losing my balance (while seated!) and tipping over.  (Maybe I was falling asleep).  I could concentrate for about five breaths and then beyond that I wouldn't know if it had been 5 seconds, 5 minutes, or 15 minutes.  I was convinced bugs were crawling all over me (they probably were).  And whenever we were instructed to ask ourselves, "Who am I?" my brain would respond, "I'm Jean Valjean!!!" or "Two Four Six Oh Oooooone!" or I would pretend I was Zoolander looking into the puddle and answer myself, "I guess I have a lot of things to ponder" and then go off replaying that scene where he's in the coal mine.  MerMAN, pop, merMAN!
This is how the inside of my mind was supposed to look during meditation.
And this is what was actually going on in my mind:

I'm glad we did the Buddhism course.  It's not often that, in our real lives, we would have the chance to devote three days to a program like this.  We learned a lot and we have a lot to think about.  I'm not so sure I'll be making meditation a part of my daily life, though it does sound nice in theory. And finally, to the Buddhist Meditation Center, I apologize for breaking your no-murder rules, but I still maintain that those mosquitoes deserved to die.  I just hope that my karma does not come in the form of malaria.

In conclusion:

A Buddhist walks up to a hotdog stand.
"Make me one with everything," he says.
He takes the hotdog and gives his money. When the vendor accepts his money without saying anything, the Buddhist asks about his change.
"Change comes from within," says the vendor.

The crew

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Weeks Twenty-Nine, Thirty and Thirty-One Daily Journal

Week Twenty-Nine

Friday, April 15
Chiang Mai, Thailand

After lunch we found ourselves at a huge parade leading to Tapae Gate.  We had fun taking photos, watching water get thrown on the paraders, and fighting with two small boys.  Then we met up at Wild Rose and headed out with the yoga peeps.  We spent the next few hours playing in the water, notably at Tapae Gate where the (disgusting brown) water was three inches deep in the street, with hundreds of people dancing to the Air Asia/CocaCola DJ.  Later we did a yoga class with Poncho and then an awesome sauna and scrub (which was a delicious edible chocolate-based scrub).  Dave stayed out afterwards and went to a club!

Saturday, April 16
Chiang Mai, Thailand

We finally checked out Chocolate Fact today, which had delicious dark chocolate lattes that went exceptionally well with the fried chicken and sticky rice we had bought at Chiang Mai Gate daytime market.  We went to a Japanese place near CMU for dinner ("we don't have sushi today, but you can have sashimi salad"- odd.  But delicious salad) and then out to a club with Mathias, his new Thai girlfriend and two of her friends

Sunday, April 17
Chiang Mai, Thailand

We went to a famous Khao Soi place for lunch and spent some time getting our laundry, sorting through our clothes and organizing.  We met up with the Wild Rose people at Kanchana, then went to Jodi and Shannon's house, then for foot massages with Maggie at the Sunday Night market.

Monday, April 18
Chiang Mai, Thailand

We went to the post office in the morning to send a package home and then to yoga at NAMO.  We got shakes and lunch at Blue Diamond, then back to the hotel to pack up.  Dave bought BeeCee, our new camera (RIP).  We said goodbye to our friends at the bike rental place (they hope we come back next year with a baby) and headed to the airport.  The flight to Bangkok was uneventful, as was our airport hotel.

Tuesday, April 19
Kathmandu, Nepal

Back to the airport for our morning flight to Kathmandu.  The happiest moment of the day was when I discovered goldfish crackers for sale at Black Canyon Coffee in the Bangkok airport.  I bought two delicious, expensive bags.  Our arrival in Kathmandu was not so great.  It was raining, the taxi touts were pushy, we discovered nationwide energy cuts were in effect, so that there was no power the entire time we were in Kathmandu.  Also, the guesthouse we had booked didn't have a room for us because the people who were supposed to check out were violently ill.  The guesthouse was apologetic and put us in a place next door which was kind of gross and the toilet wouldn't flush because there was no power and thus no water.  I was not in a good mood and I lay in bed and watched movies on paddy and ate goldfish for dinner while Dave took care of some business.

Wednesday, April 20
Pokhara, Nepal

The adorable owner of the guesthouse we didn't stay at walked us to the bus station to catch our Blue Sky Bus to Pokhara.  Bus travel in Nepal is the worst we've experienced- the roads are horrible and the buses are old, dirty and crappy.  7-8 hours later we arrived in Pokhara and checked into the lovely North Face Inn.  The owner, Raju, started as a porter, became a guide, and eventually worked his way up to guesthouse proprietor.  We met up with Kate and Charles and Sarah and Ted and went out to dinner at the Rice Bowl.

Thursday, April 21
Pokhara, Nepal

After breakfast at the Perky Bean, we met our guide for the next 11 days, Shiba and went over the trekking plans.  Then we visited a North Face knockoff shop ("Pokhara Face") to get some warm gear.  We spent the afternoon/evening hanging out on the hotel roof.  (See post, Return of the Supertrek).

Week 30

Friday, April 22 - Thursday, April 28

Annapurna Circuit

See our Annapurna Circuit posts!
April 22
April 23
April 24
April 25
April 26
April 27
April 28

Week 31

Friday, April 29 - Monday, May 2
Annapurna Circuit

See our Annapurna Circuit posts!
April 29
April 30
May 1
May 2
(bonus post 1)
(bonus post 2)

Tuesday, May 3
Pokhara, Nepal

We took care of business today, getting laundry done, internetting, etc., and went over to Shiba's house for dinner.  We met his family, looked at photos and ate a delicious dal baht.

Wednesday, May 4
Pokhara, Nepal

We spent the day in the usual way, and met up with Shiba at his brother-in-laws store to do some shopping.  That night was MomoFest 2011 (a holiday that we created), where we sampled momos from Local Momo Restaurant (buffalo steamed v fried), Momo House (steamed veg, fried chicken,steamed potato cheese) and Funky Salsa (steamed v fried chicken, steamed v fried veg).  The evening was a success but we all felt sick after, not surprisingly. (See post, MomoFest 2011).

Thursday, May 5
Pokhara, Nepal

We hiked up to the Peace Pagoda.  We took a boat across the lake, and then did the steep 40m hike up to the pagoda. We checked it out for a while and then hiked back the long way, ending up at the dam. (See post, World Peace Please). We had cheese and crackers and wine on the roof and then celebrated Cinco de Mayo with Mexican and Indian food at Davids, the restaurant down the road from the North Face Inn.