Saturday, April 25, 2009


At the Water Line

Kathmandu was not at all what I expected it to be. The consistent story I heard from other travelers was that it was a crowded, busy, polluted big city. When I arrived, the traffic didn't seem *that* bad and I found the old, city center area to be nice and walkable. Then I found out that it was just because of a petro strike! Evidently gas hadn't been trucked into the city for about a week, so the cars and pollution were way down. Lucky for me (not the city!) the strike lasted most of the time I was in town :).

Maoist MarchMaoist March

The 16-hour power outages that I faced on arrival also made things interesting. The city basically shut down after about 8pm. The Maoists are in power now here in a coalition government (after democratic elections) and the combination of drought and mismanagement have left the country with a severe shortage of power generating capacity. People are not happy, with this and with the fact that many economic reforms have not occurred as the government had promised. There were marches, strikes and protests every day that I was there. It was confusing to know who was protesting. Many times they were Communists, and I kept thinking "what are they protesting? Aren't they in power?". But evidently it is often the 18 other Communist parties in the country that are complaining about not sharing the Maoists success (plus the Maoists marching occasionally to show their strength). It doesn't feel dangerous here for tourists, and after the first few days of protests, my reaction when running into one was "Communists *again*?". (Update: having the Prime Minister resign earlier this week didn't exactly ease the tensions, either)


Trekking is the big reason many tourists come to Nepal, and the Thamel tourist district in town resembles nothing if not a gigantic REI store. You can get anything here related to hiking and outdoor activities. Some of it might even be real! Nepal is famous for selling locally-made rip-offs of outdoor clothing company wares, especially The North Face. My Isreali friend Arial likes to call them "The North Fakes". The funny thing is they are pretty well made. I had a very warm North Fake "super down" vest, sleeping bag and fuzzy cap that did me well on my trek. You start looking at the logos on the clothes, to see how close they are to the real thing, as if that's some indication of quality ("The font is a little off on that one" or "The real North Face wouldn't use such a big type face there"). The clothing rip-offs make for some interesting shifts in what brands represent over here. For instance, Dolche and Gabanna is so ubiquitous on the t-shirts, caps and cute little jackets of Nepali youth that it is more like The Gap than haute couture.

Nick - PatanPatan
PatanOsho Commune

In addition to my friend Jordi, I had the good fortune of having a couple of friends living in Kathmandu that I could stay with and see different aspects of the city. My friend Nick, who I met in Mexico last year, is staying in Kathmandu studying on a scholarship. We had a great time going to an Osho Commune up in the hills outside of town for a weekend. Unlike the high-end spa setting of the Osho Ashram that I avoided in Pune, this place had a much more down-to-earth feel. The commune offered a full-day's schedule of meditations that ran the gamut from an hour of continuous dancing to Osho's famous "Dynamic Meditation". Dynamic Meditation involves breathing as deep and as hard as you can for 10 minutes, primal screaming for 10 minutes, then jumping up and down chanting the Sufi matra "Hoo! Hoo!" for 10 minutes before collapsing into 15 minutes of meditation. Osho's idea with this was to get your body as tense and exhausted as possible before going into meditation so that you would have no thoughts at all to disturb your peace. It strangely works - after that routine my mind would be eerily silent, and those thoughts that I did have would be faint and quiet. It seemed like a lot of work to get to that state though! A fun weekend, but not really my thing...

Derber Square - Patan

Nick lived in the historic town of Patan, above a well-off Nepali family who had kind of adopted him and invited him down for dinner often. The parents were a kick and two of the sons were famous Nepali musicians. We made jackfruit curry one night and brought it down to share with them (note to future curry makers: jackfruit is nasty to work with. It gives off some sort of white latex goo that sticks to everything when you cut it). I loved the family, the mother especially. She didn't speak a word of English but was one of the funniest people I've ever met. She would ply me with the potent local Nepali wine, raxi, fill my plate with a ridiculous amount of food to eat, and then make fun of me.

Amy and me in BodnathBodnath

After staying with Nick, I moved back to central Kathmandu to stay with Amy Paro, sister of my good friend Erika. Amy and her husband Adam work for USAID in the US Embassy in Kathmandu and were wonderful hosts. They have a sweet house near the embassy with internet access, lots of power thanks to a generator, and all the amenities. This was a good break from my backpacker lifestyle. They were also trekking pros and hooked me up with some essential supplies for my trek.

Dharamsala and on to Nepal

Sorry for the delay in posting - I've been up in Nepal for a few weeks and the power situation has been a challenge (when I first arrived, the power was *off* for 16 hours a day). Just got back from trekking too, which as you can imagine is not an oasis of internet connectivity. With that...

On the toy train towards DharamsalaJordi on the toy train towards Dharamsala

(Feb. 28th) After Amritsar, Jordi and I made our way to Dharamsala to attend a Buddhist meditation retreat. Normally you take a train to this town called Pathankot, and then a 4 hour bus ride through the mountains. But we had made friends with this nice guy from Austin, Quentin, who was also attending the retreat and had his heart set on the taking the toy train (a small-gauge train that goes most of the way up the mountain). The ride was beautiful, but packed with people and long. Jordi and I had unwittingly created a barrier with our packs so people couldn't crowd us, and sat there playing with a cute baby that the woman next to us had. But poor Quentin was squished in a corner - I think at some point he had a man sitting on his lap.

Tushita Meditation Center

After some hassle getting a taxi for the rest of the way, involving a very drunk Indian intent on telling us the true secret of meditation, we arrived in Dharamsala the night before our course began. We had signed up for the "Introduction to Buddhism" course at the Tushita Meditation Center. The class turned out to be a great overview of Tibetan Buddhism, and best of all, prepared us for a public teaching by the His Holiness the Dalai Lama to be given the day after the course was over.

Going to the teaching and being in the presence of the Dalai Lama was a big highlight of my trip (much better than seeing him pass in a jeep like I did the last time I was in Dharamsala!). The ceremony around the DL's entrance was incredible. Two enormous 10 foot-long horns were blown, a procession of elder monks filed in, and then the Dalai Lama arrived with an enormous yellow plumed helmet on. Next the chant master started singing, remarkably close to the noise of the horns - a very low chord-like sound like a human didgeridoo. Then we all tuned in our little handheld radios to hear the English translation of the Dalai Lama speaking. The teaching was a fairly technical explanation of the Buddhist understanding of emptiness, which would have been completely mystifying before the class. The inherent emptiness of existence was my favorite part of the Buddhist teachings (really!) so both Jordi and I went in for a second course focused on that topic. Altogether we spent about 3 weeks up at Tushita - with excellent teachers both times. I don't think Tibetan Buddhism is exactly my path, but there is a lot about it that I admire and can see the truth in.

Tibetan Uprising 50th AnniversaryTibetan Uprising 50th Anniversary

We were also in Dharamsala at the time of the 50th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising against China in Tibet. Candlelit vigils up to the Dalai Lama's temple were held every night, which were moving and sad to watch. Though at the vigil I saw, they had these guys from an autonomous region in Italy offering to give China some advice on how to have a peaceful and successful autonomous region (note to Italy: don't wait up for that call from China). After the violent protests in Tibet during last year's anniversary, things were very subdued this year.

Mart the Shutterbug - Jalandhar

After Tushita, Jordi, myself, and this other Dutch guy Mart that we had met at the courses traveled to the India/Nepal border. Taxied down the windy mountain roads to Jalandhar (sorry Jordi!), and then took an overnight train to the border town of Gorakhpur. It was fun traveling with Mart because he was new to India and everything was fresh, exciting and photo-worthy to him.

Myanmar's Temple - LumbiniLooking at the Buddha's Birthplace
Buddha's BirthplaceLumbiniLumbini

First stop in Nepal, right across the border, was the weird, relatively newly created destination of Lumbini. The historical birthplace of the Buddha, there wasn't much there except a small village until some years ago when planning began on a series of stupas and gompas in the area. Now there are many monuments from Buddhist countries around the world (China, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea, etc). Interestingly, the most beautiful building was from that powerhouse of Buddhism, Germany (though Myanmar's golden stupa is a close second). My favorite moment was going to see the exact location where Buddha was born, and having this guy in front of me not even get off his cell phone while he was looking at it.