A chronicle of Alison and Ron's trip around the world in 2009-2010.

"Not all those who wander are lost"
- Tolkien

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Final Words on India

How can I part without a love note to chai tea? The chai, rich with cardamom, is delicious and sweet and buttery good. We purchased some tea in a little clay pot from a Chai-wallah on the street. Unsure of what to do once it was drunk, we were instructed to throw it on the ground into pieces. So we did. A bit guiltily.

And I will miss all the head waddling: how the Indians say yes by shaking their head side to side like a charming little bobble head.

I may have said it before: it’s dirty in India, but I still want to make a fashion statement. What’s a girl to do? How about a hot pink face mask, the chic accessory of choice to filter out unappetizing smells and urban pollution alike.

I never knew that the Swastika symbol was a holy and auspicious Hindu symbol. It is everywhere: on temples, statues, altars, etched onto doorways, and ever present in festivals and ceremonies. One of 108 symbols for the Hindu deity Vishnu representing the sun's rays.

Being stigmatized so heavily in the West, as the symbol of the Nazi party, it induced from me more scorn than curiosity. I was fascinated to dig deeper into the use of the swastika throughout history as a symbol of good luck. If you are interested there is a good Wikipedia article about it. (I'm hoping right now I'm not the only one who didn't know!)

We watched a fair amount of TV in India to escape the heat and stem late-night boredom in our guestroom. Other than the Samsung commercial that is burned on our brains, we learned that most woman are mightily concerned with "hair fall" and most men want a Mont Blanc pen so they have "the power to write their own destiny". Damn advertising, I can’t believe this is one of the memories I leave India with!

India is a dizzying, fascinating country that feels like a blur from the inside of a tuk-tuk as easily as it could be the inside of a cuisinart. Flashes of bright rainbow colored saris, henna'd hair, red bindis on the forehead, hands in mudra, sacred cows, and miles of marigold garlands. I feel like I didn’t get deep enough, or entrenched enough in the culture. But at the same time, it was as much as I could bear for my first trip to the sub-continent.

Of India, people say you either love it or hate it, there is nothing in between. I don't think it has to be quite that stark, but it is certain the country will evoke strong emotion and wring out every neuron in your brain. In a single afternoon walk you can run through the gamut of awe, disgust, confusion, rapture and back again.

I'm intrigued enough to return, under different circumstances and different auspices (and lots more money!)  for the list of experiences left undone. I didn't have the nerve to visit (or run away to) an ashram. My turned ankle kept me from 908 asanas on the Ganga. I didn't take a houseboat ride on Dal Lake up north in Kashmir or visit the beauty of Kerala state and eat masala dosa in the south. And most distressing, I didn't see any tigers!

What I wouldn't give to see these furry critters taking a romantic dip, awwwww....


Friday, December 25, 2009

Gorgefest in Goa

We wanted to go from Varanasi to Madhya Pradesh region, or more specifically to the Bandhavgarh National Park where we could spot some big tigers. Unfortunately, fate wasn’t with us. Being high season and not planning in advance left us few transportation options. We could potentially take a bus to the park but pressing on to Goa sounded like three days in Purgatory, requiring several transfers between buses and trains. Apparently all the trains were booked for the entire end of December from Mumbai (Bombay) to Goa. What to do? We decided to stay in Varanasi a few extra days and take an airplane. Gasp! We cheated.

The flight wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns, consisting of three separate fights spread out over 26 hours. First up was an afternoon flight to Delhi that ran two hours late. Then we flew to Mumbai and had a long stopover before flying on to Goa, arriving the following morning exhausted. Ron also caught a slight cold, making the journey more arduous on him.

We flopped into our sandy bed at Saritas Guest House, too tired to complain that the room hadn’t even been cleaned. We stayed at Bogalo Beach which was nice, but not spectacular. I thought Goa was the French Riviera of India? Maybe because we stayed in the cheaper section of South Goa instead of the ritzier North Goa shoreline.

We enjoyed eating simple grilled food on the deck overlooking the ocean, walking in the white sand, and watching the sunset. Basically relaxing and laying low, like cows on a beach, while Ron recovered from his cold.

On a search for breakfast one morning, we stumbled upon a deserted beachside café. There were some cooks in the kitchen, not intent on actually cooking anything for us hungry customers, but on our way out we scanned the book exchange. Like a chorus of angels heralded from above, there was a golden glow around a large, imposing, brick of a book, hard-backed version of the brand spanking new Lost Symbol. Whether or not it is wise to admit so openly, Ron and I are both huge fans of Dan Brown and have been eagerly awaiting his next installment. I know, we’re lame, but there it is: I said it. I devoured it in twelve hours flat while lazing poolside at the next hotel we stayed at.

My brother was beyond sweet to put us up at a swanky hotel for the week of Christmas and in doing so, won the “Best Christmas Gift Ever” award. As we walked onto the manicured grounds at Heritage Village Club on Arrosim Beach, greeted by fresh flowers, fountains, and a fizzy welcome drink, I heard the Jefferson’s theme song in my mind, “You’re movin on up, movin on up...”

It exceeded all expectation - an unimaginable treat after the slumming we’d been doing. Our room was immaculate and shiny and was cleaned twice a day. I nearly hugged the housekeeper one afternoon, overwhelmed by gratitude for clean sheets and lavender sachets, down comforters and decorative teddy bears, granite countertops and designer faucets. Even our names were personalized on a sign outside. Sort of.

How did we do without these luxuries? Oh shit, how will we be able to travel again after this?!

We spent most of our days sunning and swimming in the large pool. We played countless games of HORSE on the poolside basketball hoop and threw a beach ball around like two kids on summer vacation. Around 11am, the swim-up bar would open and we’d start sucking down screwdrivers by the gallon.

Didn't I tell you it was all-inclusive? Open bar and all-you-can-eat buffet all day and all night. Holy cow, I um, became a cow and must have gained five pounds in seven days. Can you blame me? For once we didn’t have to skimp or count our rupees. Ron could drink ten coffees a day and even have dessert after dinner. It was HEAVEN ON EARTH.

We had our first ever balmy beachside Christmas Day. It was strange at first being so far from home, although the hotel was decorated festively and played Silent Night on repeat in the dining room. There was a big barbeque feast at night with row upon row of savory Indian dishes, seafood delicacies, and a whole roasted pig.

After gorging, we snickered at their cheesy dinner show and sipped champagne until the wee hours. We wish you all a very Merry Christmas from Goa!

Everything about our week was simply splendid until we checked out and they presented us with the bill, upon which I nearly fainted. Apparently there was some debacle at AMEX and the bill was not charged to my brother’s card. We had an hour before leaving for the airport and after a frenzy of phone calls, harsh words, and tears, we settled the bill and made it just in time.

All good things must come to an end, but there are many more adventures that await us. Next stop: Thailand!


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jaded in the City

One of the downsides of this trip is having to deal with touts, drug dealers, and other unsavory sorts on a daily basis. We have been forced to learn the ins and outs and always remain vigilant. Some will catch you off guard. Saunter up to you in a business suit and nonchalantly whisper, “ You want marijuana? …hashish? …mdma? ….cocaine? …brown sugar? …you-name-it, what do you like?“ They are well diversified in product with a virtual drugstore beneath their tailor-made coat. The perfect response to this question is: “I don’t do drugs” which will thankfully end the conversation. A drug dealer knows not what to do when faced with someone who does not partake : no ailment to relieve, nor thrill to be had.

Even if we did want drugs, there are way too many reports of tourists being entrapped by police in cahoots with the dealers and, more importantly, I promised my Dad at least a hundred times that I wouldn't end up in a Thai prison. Needless to say, we were very good boys and girls.

To the rickshaws and taxi drivers pressuring us for a ride, we respond: “I need some exercise“. To the silk salesman and “come see my shop” guys we save them face and promise to stop by later.

Unfortunately there is no good response to the absolute most frequent bombardment which occurs maybe fifty to sixty times a day: “Hey! What’s your name? Where are you from?” You can’t play dumb, obviously we are Western, and look like Americans or Canadians or Brits. You can’t lie, how would that help. And you can’t be silent. because that will beg the question again and again and again. If anyone has a good way to defuse this fake conversation starter please let me know.

Sometimes it can be so maddening. With every new unsolicited interaction it builds and bubbles and simmers until I want to scream at the top of my lungs:


Then maybe, just maybe, we can keep walking and save everyone the time and hassle. Alright, so I’ve become a tad jaded and I assume that anyone who talks to us wants something. This has reached such epic proportions that sometimes I blurt, “No thank you!” before they even get a word out of their mouth. As we walked to dinner one night, I verbally karate chopped a guy who was merely pointing out some monkeys above us playing on the electrical lines. Okay, so not everyone wants our rupee, it just appears that way.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Holy Ganga of Varanasi

Varanasi, the holiest of holy cities, has as many visually-charged epithets as one would expect. It is the city of death and pilgrims; the city of learning and burning. All life (and inevitably death) revolves around the Ganges River, also known, simply, as Ganga. There is more folklore flora and religious fauna to fill up five blogs, so please excuse me if I heavily abbreviate.

One morning we got up before dawn to take a boat trip up and down the river. We met Aso, a bearded boatman with a checkerboard boat, who expounded trivia and colorful tidbits as he rowed. He recalled the great monsoon of 1978 that flooded the Ganges to its highest recorded levels, where water surged past the highest ghat steps and flowed freely into the streets of the Old City.

We meandered down the river in the early morning hours; the sky softened into a wispy dawn. Birds scattered and swarmed in play.

There were sacred cows with wild eyes...

...and endearing goats wearing shirts to stay warm...

...and sadhus, ascetics whitewashed in ash, otherworldly yet not at all out of place on the steep ghat steps.

We passed dozens of ghats, each with a different purpose, named for worship of a different god, and frequented by a different sect. We passed Jain Ghat, a Buddhist temple; Janki Ghat for Rama’s wife; Nishadraj Ghat, the Boatmens ghat; Niranjani Gghat, a sadhu ashram; Kedar Ghat, a small Shiva temple; Digpatya Ghat, dedicated to Hare Krishna; Asi Ghat, the first of the holy ghats; and Dasasanwedi, the main ghat, to name only a few.

A trip here would be for incomplete without visiting the infamous burning pyres at the rivers edge. There are two: Harish Chandra, the small burning ghat and Manikarnika, the large burning ghat. Saffron wrapped bodies are strewn with marigolds and placed respectfully on the pyre to burn for two to three hours. Some people can’t be burned on the pyres and are given up to the river directly, these include: lepers, children, pregnant women, brahmins, and those poisoned by king cobras. Apparently it not uncommon to see floating corpses in the river, although thankfully we were spared this disturbing sight.

At the large ghat, the burning goes on 24 hours a day producing up to 200 cremations. An average pyre costs 3000 rupees ($60) but can vary in price depending on the quantity and qualify of wood used and the priests services rendered. The eldest son takes a place of prominence in the funeral ritual, releasing the final bits of bone and ash into the river where they sometimes scavenge the remains and pick out pieces of jewelry and gold fillings.

It is an honor to be burned on the pyres by the Ganges river and many travel vast distances to await their final liberation, what Hindu’s call the attainment of moksha. Death is not a quiet, somber event but a necessary, if not celebrated, evolution. One leaves the particular to join the universal; and rejoin the river of history like a drop of rain.

The local people bathe, brush their teeth, and wash their clothes in the holy waters. As we pass men and women beating their laundry vigorously on the ghat steps, Aso astutely called it the “Ganga Washing Machine”.

It might be a shocking enough use of the foul brown river water - with all the dead bodies, ashes, and human waste flowing in it - but even more disturbing is when the locals scoop up in their hands and drink it!! Although they purport these to be holy waters with true medicinal value, it is filthy beyond imagination. Do they know that the amount of ecoli bacteria and fecal coliform are 3,000 times worse than the safe level determined by the World Health Organization? Yuck.

We hired Aso another night for a boat trip to see the Ganga puja or Brahmin ceremony. Every evening at 6pm at the Prayag ghat, five Brahmin offer aarti or prayer, through circling lamps and incense, singing, drumming and chanting.

We were accompanied by Aso’s three daughters who were eager to sell us their handmade wares and fledgling services. The oldest was so persistent, I relented and had my first henna, a loopy twisting design on the back of my hand, painted on by the faintest candlelight. Admittedly, a rocking, dark boat may not have been the wisest choice for semi-permanent body art; it was sloppy and amateurish, but the girl was proud and so was I.

Hundreds of diyas floated on the river like twinkling stars in the inky sky. A prayer in each one, and in each heart.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Newsflash: Sad Dog Incites Twisted Ankle

One morning, we were coming back through the gate into the hotel grounds and I noticed the saddest dog chained up and whimpering in the corner. Sometimes its appalling how poorly the animals are treated here, and ironic, in a land of vegetarians. Apparently, this lifestyle has more to do with dietary restriction and little to do with being humane towards animals.

Anyways, I was talking and looking back over my left shoulder at sad pooch and twisted my ankle on a patch of slanted grass by the walkway. More like I mangled my ankle. I think I came down on the left side of my foot so hard that I heard bones crunch. I fell down on the grass in a half summersault roll, grabbing my ankle in pain, seriously thinking I broke it. Ron hovered over me, freaking out, the look of panic in his eyes mirroring my own. I immediately flashed to the scary Indian hospital on the corner, crutches, a cast, and our trip ending in the blink of an eye.

Ron got the manager over, he took one look at me and said I was fine. Through teary eyes, I told him I heard a crunch, and he replied that if I broke a bone we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Point taken. He sprayed my ankle and foot with a numbing solution and in a few minutes I was able to get up and limp away.

I felt like I dodged a bullet, although I had to stay off my foot for a couple days, soaking it in a hot bucket of salty water and applying moove, a local pain ointment. It was sore in that tender place under the arch of my foot for almost three weeks afterwards. But we pressed on…and I regret to report, I didn’t liberate the sad, mangy dog in the corner; he’s still chained to that very spot.


Friday, December 11, 2009

The India-Nepali Border Crossing

We were embarking on an epic and exhausting adventure by traveling overland from Kathmandu to Varanasi. The high level plan was to take a bus to Bhairawa, walk across the India-Nepali border to Saunali, take another bus to Gorakpur, and a train the last leg to Varanasi. Total travel time from door to door was estimated at twenty hours. The mere idea of this can make you queasy, but we pressed on. We are not hardcore vagabonds that relish in the least comfortable conditions, yet we similarly find ourselves with far more time on our hands than money in our pockets. We would gladly book the two hour flight on Jetstar like all the other sane people out there, but the adventure awaits...

We decided to enlist Touch Paradise to book the major legs of the trip, hoping to both give our friends some business and ourselves a break from logistical planning. I’m sad to say this didn’t make it any easier, cheaper, or more streamlined. Below is what we learned on the road, and there is but one way you learn on the road: the hard way.

The first important thing to know when you are traveling is where you are going. Duh. While this should be obvious there are at least a hundred cases where the local inhabitants call their city by several names or variations thereof. Either they are slow to adopt the new name out of habit or principle; or they have disdain for the anglicized version; who knows, whatever the case, it will be listed differently on your map, guidebook, tour brochure, train station board, and you will get a history lesson free of charge from the guy on the corner you beg for some semblance of clarity. This leads to a lot of unnecessary confusion and traveler heartache (like heartburn only it last much longer, sometimes your entire life) Let‘s take Varanasi: No one calls it Varanasi but you. It was once upon a time the ancient city of Kasi, then Varanasi, then anglicized to Benares or Banares which is still widely used, then back to Varanasi. This is but one example, there are millions of Istanbul’s which were Constantinople’s.

My advice for budget travelers is to book the train leg ahead but arrange the bus and jeep portions as you go. Expect to pay a maximum of 600 NPR ($8) from Kathmandu to Saunali which doesn’t include 150 NPR for rickshaw to the border. That’s right, the bus will stop a mile or so from the border, leaving you standing and scratching your head with all of your luggage.

The border is complete and utter chaos. There are cars, trucks, rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles, cows, pigs, and people all jammed into every square inch of road, facing off against each other in irresolvable gridlock. There is just nowhere to go: not back, not forward, not sideways. There are no sidewalks, and as a pedestrian, god help you, you have to traverse this insanity through dumb luck and some well-timed shoves. Let’s just say if you looked up the word ‘clusterfuck’ in the dictionary you would see a picture of the India-Nepali border crossing.

On a good night, if you are walking across the border with a valid passport and the appropriate visas, then you can get through the border checkpoint in 1 hour. We planned on two hours just to be safe. I was grouchy, flustered, and sweating by the time we reached the Indian checkpoint and realized that I had left my passport on the Nepali side. Fuck. Yes, that is two expletives in two paragraphs, and I’m seriously making an effort to restrain myself. All in all, it was a ten expletive day. Ron ran back through the gauntlet of obstacles in what he described was like OJ Simpson in the 70’s Hertz commercial, where instead of leaping over rows of departure lounge seats it was carts of chickens. "Go Critter Go!"

To get to Gorakpur train station the cheapest is the bus but can take 3-4 hours depending on stops. The jeep can take as little as 2 hours, so if you are short on time don’t risk missing your train connection by taking the bus. A jeep costs the locals only 100 INR ($2) but they will ask you to pay anywhere from 150-200 INR ($3-4), which you can try to negotiate unless of course it is nearing 6:30pm and the last jeep is leaving and you should be happy with any seat you get. This is what happened to us. We took the last two seats in the last jeep, which meant we sat in the trunk on fold down seats with several other people. We were cramped and hunched over, our interlaced knees smashed into each other.

A helper boy of about 14 clung to the back bumper of the jeep as we tore through the night on the bumpy roads. I was worried for his safety, and as he wore a thin shirt, for his stamina against the chill. He must have been reading my thoughts and opened the trunk - with the jeep careening at top speed - and climbed in on top of us, the unsuspecting passengers. This made the uncomfortable ride, several magnitudes worse. He did offer us a cookie. But when we asked for a reduced fare - only slightly jokingly - he just laughed and laughed.

We arrived at the train station: an enormous, unimpressive concrete structure amidst a crowd of heaving, smelly people. We had not eaten a substantial meal all day and our prospects were low. Either we could brave the food shacks outside the train station or take our chances on what lay within. Neither sounded appealing. We weaved our way inside and found a snack bar that offered several types of savory pastries and pies. We bought six for under two dollars and found a bench to devour them. Then we waited - generously sprinkled from head to toe with flaky crumbs - for our train.

The train prices vary depending on class. Third class travel is the cheapest at 150 INR ($3) for a pre-booked ticket, and isn’t bad if you have a hardy constitution and are prepared with warm clothes, insect repellent, water, and earplugs. Sadly, we had none of these items at the ready. There were no provided blankets and the windows were stuck open letting in sub zero freezing temperatures and big fat mosquitoes by the dozen. Apparently not an incongruous happening. It was so cold Ron dug his wool socks out of his backpack to wear on his hands. I wasn’t so lucky. I tossed and turned and questioned my travel motives: what am I doing this for?

We arrived at 5am in the morning without a room reservation. Of course, our rickshaw driver didn’t want to take us to a riverside guest house of our choosing but finally he relented. He couldn’t get us very close so I had to follow him through the twisting and turning alleys while Ron stayed behind with our luggage. The guest house was completely dark when the rickshaw driver banged on the metal door, stirring a clerk inside. A few excited words were exchanged in Hindi and guess what? They were booked. Big surprise, he had suggestions for where to stay, but two flop houses later, we managed to get a decent hotel suggestion out of him and checked in to the Singh Guesthouse.

Twenty four hours after we left Kathmandu we slithered into our hard platform bed and shivered under the shabby covers. Why is it so cold? Whatever happened to the whole fabled notion of the Indian summer?

Yes, I’m a bit cranky,...but can you blame me?


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Beginnings and Endings in Kathmandu

First, the magical beginnings...

We returned to Kathmandu on Ring Road and saw the most unexpected sight - an enormous golden Buddha glittering in the sun. It was at the entrance of Swayambunath that we had previously visited, but since we had walked the winding the streets to the temple instead of taking the tour bus we somehow bypassed it.

This time around, we stayed at the famous Kathmandu Guest House. There are many levels of accomodation to choose, but as we were in the cheapest, our room was only a modest upgrade. The real draw, however, was the surrounding décor and hotel grounds - so atmospheric they made an ordinary breakfast interesting. As is eating while sitting cross-legged.

Krishna, our Annapurna porter, invited us over to his humble abode for dinner. He lived in a two room apartment with his wife, son, and mother-in-law that graciously welcomed us. We brought a bottle of our favorite rum: over which we drank, shared pictures, and stories of our life and in the process became good friends. I call Krishna my Bai (which means little brother in Nepali) and he calls me Didi (or big sister). We ate dinner, a sumptuous feast prepared by his wife at nearly midnight, which made me realize that eating late must be traditional for this part of the world. Note to self: eat a snack before attending any hosted dinners in Nepal or India lest you will be ravenous (and certainly a bit tipsy) by the main course!

We made our first (and potentially only) major purchase of the trip - a Thangka painting. We must have visited twenty shops in two days in a search, no a mission, for one piece that spoke equally to both of us. In the process we became quasi experts with the ability to spot sloppy work, pieces cranked out in production line fashion, and the true hallmark of a master: the intricate details of Buddha’s facial expressions made with hair follicle sized brushes.

We stumbled into Gauri Thangka Center, a popular gallery in Thamel, where they showcased exceptional buddhist art. Some were not even for sale and others fetched enormous sums like a recent purchase by Elton John. Fearing we were out of our price range, we were shown a few reasonably priced pieces in our range (like maybe three), but one was “the one“. It was a Buddha mandala painted in blues and bright pinks by Llama and master artist Bos Badu. We immediately resonated with it but to be sure, we ran back and viewed our second and third choices again before making the big decision to buy it. With the sun nestled behind the hills and our stomachs rumbling from lack of nourishment, we still took a jaunt to the tailor to pick out a silk brocade frame in deep purple. It was an exhausting day, but every detail had to be worked out.

Now, the sad(dest) endings...

We visited Pashputinath Temple: one of the holiest temples in the world, dedicated to Lord Shiva, and worshipped by both Hindus and Buddhists. The river that runs through the temple complex is where the Hindu funeral rituals take place. The corpses are covered in marigold and carried out on a metal stretcher to the river steps, where family gathers to pay their respect. The body is lit upon the pyre, burnt to ash, and eventually returned to the river. The cycle of life.

It was the first time I’ve seen a dead body up close and it was spooky. His bloated face had a curious resemblance to Tattoo from Dynasty. His body was immeasurably stiff and unyielding, like a piece could be broken off without disturbing the rest. He was on the paupers side of the river, where it cost but pennies for a funeral. The smoke that filled the air seemed noxious and full of death. Wait, it was full of death. The thought made me more ill than I was already feeling. Facing mortality and our nonnegotiable end is never a pleasant affair.

I wasn’t feeling altogether myself so we took a taxi back to the hotel. The driver was cordial enough at first but then tried to drop us off at least a mile from Thamel. We had taken many cabs so I was definitely rubbed the wrong way and offered him half the fare for half the ride. He was pissed with a capital P and started swearing at us in Nepali. Screeching through the narrow streets like a bat out of hell barely avoiding pedestrians and rickshaws unwittingly in his path of terror. I got out of the taxi while we fought in the simplest English he could muster. “You are not nice!” To which I replied, “No, you are not nice! Very bad man!” and stormed off. Only later did I realize that my camera must have come out of my pocket in the backseat of the taxi. I could imagine him smirking in my minds eye, with my camera and almost as worse, the last word.

In our leisurely pace of travel to and from Pokhara for our trek, we completely forgot to renew our 30 day visa! We were already 10 days late and had to burn two afternoons and $60 in late fees at the visa office across town. Fortunately, Nepal is lenient towards tourists and we were not deported from the country on the spot.

All tolled we will have spent six weeks in this beautiful and diverse country. From the highest peaks in the world down to the bustling Kathmandu valley, from the garishly decorated rickshaws to the simplest hillside monastery, from the serene Buddha eyes atop the stupas to the smiling eyes of the Nepali locals, it was indeed one of our favorite countries.

Pheri bhetau laa - we’ll see you again, Nepal!


Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Peace of Pokhara

“No other mountain view in the world is equal to Machhapuchre, with Annapurna hanging there in the sky above the green Pokhara plain.”
-Tilman, Legendary British Mountaineer

After the trek, we arrived back in Pokhara ready for some serious rest and relaxation. We searched and searched for a guesthouse that was both reasonably priced and had an in-room internet connection. This was much tougher to find than you would expect. None of the budget guesthouses offered wifi and the places that did were too expensive and charged by the hour. We almost caved and checked into Hotel Barahi, one of the most costly options in Pokhara, from sheer desperation but we would have to eat and drink air for two weeks. Unlikely. Dejected, we crossed the street and ran into an enterprising guy who jury-rigged an internet connection from the hotel office through a second story window into our room. For $25 a night, we were stoked. And we also got a bed with a real comforter and a bathroom with a bath tub! Unfortunately the food at the hotel sucked, so we were forced to leave our safe haven a couple times a day in search of sustenance. Aw, well you can’t have it all.

We had a couple favorites that we visited several times. A local dive nearby the hotel, called Aashis Fast Food, was run by the sweetest husband and wife team. They served up decent fare for super cheap and even let me take away a tray of dishes when Ron got sick one day (we think from the horrid room service at our hotel).

There is a lot of variety in the restaurants in Lakeside and we enjoyed: Japanese, Korean, Indian and Mexican dishes. Our clear favorite was Everest Steakhouse that served up huge steaks smothered with your choice of toppings like grilled onions and champignon mushrooms. We would order the half steak for 325 NRS ($5) which was about 12 ounces of steak alongside steamed vegetables and french fries. I think we went 3 or 4 times, including a reunion dinner with Yoav and Michal, and it was consistently yummy. The only criticism I could make was that they had the dullest steak knives on earth. Lucky the steak wasn’t too tough but it did measurably slow the mastication of the meat to have to cut through it with a butter knife.

And then there was the coffee. Ron, a self proclaimed coffee addict, has never quite adjusted to Nescafe and often laments that the budget restricts his free intake of caffeine. So imagine his glee when he found not one but several restaurants offering organic coffee, filter coffee, and the much sought after French press coffee. Oh my.

Although, many days we nested, there was always a cacophony of sounds outside our bedroom window to keep us company. It would start with a startlingly loud Moo! In the dead of the night. So loud, I would jump upright in bed, positively sure the sound emanated from somewhere as close as the bathroom. Later, with the birth of dawn came the loud crowing of birds rising and falling in waves upon the winds above the hotel. Then the vegetable guy would push his cart by at 7am sharp like he has probably done for 20 years calling something nasally monotone that sounded like “Ma na maaaaaaahr”. Next as the locals rise to get ready for the day there is the frequent ralphing sounds as they suck their snot through their nose and spit it out. No one uses tissues or handkerchiefs around these parts, that’s just nasty. It is much more socially acceptable to be a diminutive and smooth skinned Nepali woman walking down the street hawking up a loogie. Skink-hock-ptui!

The streets or street alongside the lake has just the perfect amount of action. There isn’t too much traffic. The sidewalks are wide and welcoming for us pedestrians, and there’s always something interesting to behold. One day, Ron saw the most unorthodox (read: inhumane) way to transport live chickens via motorbike.

One afternoon, we watched a bad action movie being filmed that, like on tv, we couldn’t quite pull ourselves away from. Part “what will happen next” and part “I can’t believe someone is wasting film for this”, we watched amongst a crowd of onlookers until we were shooed away for being in the shot.

And then there was the thankpa artist, that was quite happily and thoroughly excavating his nose cavity whilst he painted an elaborate mandala. I don’t know if this is my idea of zen. Similar to India, nose picking is not a private activity, and frequently happens in the midst of conversation. There is nothing much you can do at this point but hope you are not offered a handshake or some food after they dig out the golden nugget.

Ron got his first straight razor shave. The foam was slathered on his face in synchronization with the techno-nepali music in the background. It was supposed to be two or three dollars, but then the guy offered to trim his hair in a hideous marine cut and massaged his neck and then demanded more money. He was giving me the evil eye the whole time as I took pictures, probably because he knew I wore bigger pants than he. When I got wind of this little extortion I payed the guy the agreed upon price and told him not to swindle tourists into extra services without first discussing the price. He probably burned a couple holes into the back of my skull as I walked away, but I'm used to it by now.

The country is relatively stable and we felt safe traveling around, even though there were a number of Maoist protests going on that virtually shut down the country, including our bus back to Kathmandu. But we weren’t exactly sad about staying in Pokhara another night, we had been charmed.

Pokhara is pronounced poke-ha-rah with the emphasis on the last syllable but Ron calls it poke-a-harah like Pocahontas, and now I find myself saying it too. The locals don’t much appreciate it but smile anyways as we mangle most of their language. I guess it’s the effort that counts. At least we have Namaste down pat. A universal hello and goodbye in Nepal, every time I say it, it brings me back to the end of a hundred yoga classes, my hands in a prayer over my heart chakra, my heart saying “I honor the light within you.”

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