Category Archives: Travel

A Youth Hostel Tale

Just got back from a trip in South America where I had the pleasure of staying in a couple of youth hostels for the first time since last fall’s Dreamforce in San Francisco. Tonight I was looking for my famous packing list, and went to the online trip journal I did in 2002. Came across this funny tale of the youth hostel in Vilnius, Lithuania. Can resist sharing it. Part of why this is funny to me is that I met the same annoying American sleaze guy…okay, not the SAME guy, but his clone, in Buenos Aires three weeks ago.

Vilnius, Lithuania–
This is the quintessential youth hostel, here in Vilnius, with all the advantages and disadvantages thereof. So today’s log is devoted to a description of the scene here.

You walk into a decrepit courtyard through an archway from the main road. Five droopy trees, cobblestones, tufts of pathetic grass. Maybe a kitten romping after leaves. In the corner is the classic International Youth Hostel sign, a hut with a leaning pine tree. Through the door and the first thing you see is a sign that you should take off your shoes. Places to sit. Bricks and stones incorporated into a plaster wall, with a mural of old Vilnius. Down some slick varnished stairs and you’re in the kitchen/commons room. There’s a small table and some chairs, a couch and some padded benches, a space designed for conversation. Several backpacks are leaning against one wall, there’s a shelf of books to exchange (I picked up Tom Jones and left San Francisco, deep trash romance.) And the free internet-ready computer sits on a shelf on the back wall. The walls are blue and yellow, with stones and brick. The air smells right now of the fried potatoes the hotel kids have cooked up. There are plenty of pots, pans, utensils, plates, bowls and cups–in contrast to the hostel in Gdansk, where there were two plates, three forks and two big spoons and two coffee spoons for seven or eight backpackers who wanted to cook.

In the other direction are showers. “Uh, not much privacy,” said one master of understatement.

Our dorm room has nine beds–four sets of bunks and one low bed (mine). Trying to get down from the top bunk for a pee in the middle of the night is off my list of Things I’m Happy To Do. We are paying 34 Lts each, about $10 or so, a night for our beds. The dorm is mixed, boys, girls and drunks.

Vilnius is one of those places that attracts an interesting mix of backpacker travelers. There are a few kids who’ve done a semester abroad somewhere and are now traveling. There are still some Major City tourists, people doing Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, Paris, etc. But we left them mostly behind in Berlin. They were all headed to Prague or coming from there.

Here’s a panache of the interesting folks here:

The New Zealanders I wrote about yesterday, old travelers like ourselves, taking on adventure because they have just never stopped.

Italian guy, 43, living in Finland for the past 11 years, working on a PhD in Jewish studies, tracing his father’s roots in synagogue records. “For curiosity, notting more.”

American girl, Peace Corps teaching English in Moscow, on a two-week holiday. She knew Spanish and it was either learn Russian or go to Equador as a bee-keeper.

Irish guy who flew to Singapore and came overland through Vietnam, China and Mongolia and then came across on the TransSiberian.

In fact, this is the place to get all the lowdown on the TransSiberian Railway trip. Two Aussie girls just came in who came from Vladivostok on the train, stopping six times along the way. No reservations. No organization. Just getting off and finding hotels and then getting back on. Four weeks across Russia.

British guy, a database computer guy whose company is transferring him back to the London office from several years in New Zealand. He negotiated a three-month break between jobs and he took the overland route, also on the train,but for him, nonstop since he could get only a transit visa. He spent ten days roughing it in Mongolia–I heard all about it at six this morning, hiring a jeep van with a driver for $40 (split six ways with people he met in the hostel in the major city). Few roads, mostly dirt tracks. Stopping to buy carrots and potatoes and mutton from nomads in yurts. It was terrible food, he said.

Spanish beauty, spent a semester abroad in Sopot, Poland, west of Gdansk, studying economics and Polish. She has dark hair and dark eyes and wears form-fitting spaghetti-strap tops that don’t cover her belly button.

American guy from Nebraska, majored in Norwegian (though he isn’t Norwegian), now in medical school, flew to Slovakia to visit his sister who’s teaching English with the Lutherans.

Assorted others–a Brazilian girl, two Japanese guys, one of them starting dreadlocks, a pair of Finnish girls.

Sleazy American guy who boasted about spending all of his five days in Poland drunk.

South African girl who came up overland and hitched here through Poland. She drank too much vodka too quickly and passed out cold on her way out to go clubbing, about 100 yards from the hostel. The two boys with her hauled her back…and I do mean hauled…under the watchful eye of a local policeman. They woke JF up to help get her into bed. Her room is next to ours, so when she started puking an hour later–and continued for the next two hours, I knew I wasn’t going to get my eight hours of required shuteye. One of the college boys from the states stayed up holding her head and checking regularly to make sure she was still breathing.

I fessed up to the time I pulled a similar stunt in a youth hostel in Florence, Italy. The last thing I remember was the staircase leading upstairs. I woke in a different bed than my own, in different clothes, my glasses nowhere to be seen.

“Uh, did you see me come in last night?” I asked one of the girls in the room.

“No, we didn’t notice you until you fell out of bed, pissed and then rolled in it,” a very kindly British girl informed me. Apparently, they, too, had sat up checking my breathing, worried that I would leave this world that very night. I didn’t throw up, though I’m sure that was small consolation to the girls who washed out my clothes and got me into different ones.

I told that story to the group sitting vigil, and added, “At least now I know when to say, ‘I need to get horizontal.'”

To which the sleazy American replied, “I wish I knew more girls who want to get horizontal.”

Ethiopian Updates

This is a fine pickle, I must say. I’m spending the weekend at the Addis Regency Hotel, which is a kind of mid-level hotel somewhere in the city, because the power has been off altogether at Selamta all day, from about 10 am onwards. Faced with the prospect of spending the weekend alone, in an empty building in a partly build suburban neighborhood without internet and possibly without power, I moved to the Regency. Nobody could even access their computers today. We will see what Monday brings.

It isn’t even that the internet is scarce. It’s that it’s impossible to access things like Facebook, Twitter…and most importantly, Salesforce. I haven’t been able to get into the database that powers my livelihood, my travels and my career since I arrived.

Jet lag is also a fairly significant issue this time. By the time I arrived on Wednesday morning, I’d had a total of five hours’ sleep over 48 hours. I spent Wednesday sleeping all day–I never do that! I remember the teachable moment some years back when JF lead a group of Southern Methodist University students to France and it took me a full week to recover from the jet lag because I kept having these little “naps” every afternoon. From then on, I’ve just powered through that first day, no matter where it is.
This time, my resolve just collapsed. All I wanted to do was sleep. Nothing else on God’s green earth mattered. So sleep I did. And now, of course, I’m reaping what I sowed.
I’ve been drinking this wonderful coffee several times a day, but it just flat doesn’t work. So I’m awake starting at about midnight, off and on, for the rest of the night, and start getting woozy sleepy off and on all day.
Of course, if I could actually do any work, I’m pretty sure that would keep me mostly awake, and occupy my time when I couldn’t sleep. As it is, I’m plowing through the books I brought. I never expected three books to last me for two months, but The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America is simply melting beneath my fingers.
So what else is new? My friend Susan Cunningham–who is now in Myanmar (which I still think of as Burma)– informs me that the King of Thailand just died, the oldest monarch still sitting on the throne. That leaves Elizabeth in England, I understand.
My health seems to be lurching along without major issues, unless you count sleeping at all hours of the day. I haven’t had dinner at any of the family homes yet. Abel, the local director here, suggested that I spend more time with the families as a way to deal with the lack of work that can get done. Most of the volunteers who come to Selamta, he said, find the time they spend with the families the most rewarding. That makes sense, of course, because most volunteers come here to work WITH the kids and the families in one way or another.
For me, it’s the staff of the organization that I want to get to know, both for work and also for pleasure. This isn’t usual, I suspect.  Today, I told Staff Manager Dureti straight out that I have been feeling lonely here. I guess that’s an accurate description of my state. The last time I came, there were the Canadians, Cori and Christine, and Melissa, the soap maker, and Marisa with her daughter Lily, and many others who passed through.
And I also just got here from my own version of the Cast of Thousands– Dreamforce.
I’m suddenly without a sidekick, a snuggly bear, or a traveling accomplice. And I’m suddenly without anything but Gmail over the internet. No wonder I’m feeling as though the rug were just yanked out from under me.
On the other hand, this state of mind is not unknown to the Intrepid Traveler…or even the Trepidatious Traveler, for that matter. Nobody who travels alone can escape this loneliness from time to time. Sunday, local director Abel will pick me up at 8:15 to go to church with his family. I brought my long black dress and spectacular silk scarf that goes with it– thank goodness I have a dress-up-dress!
I did have a wild fantasy just now…Susan in Myanmar sent me a piece about the new Chinese railroad between Addis and Djibouti and lamenting the old, neglected French one. Gawd, to hop on a train and GO somewhere! Not just sit here watching “That site cannot be reached” come up every time I try to access Salesforce. I doubt I’ll be that foolish, what with the State of Emergency here and the Unrest in the Countryside. Abel did say that if I took a PLANE to Lalibela, that would probably work fine. Just fly over the revolution, hey!
Here’s a news article about the unrest. It doesn’t go in depth about the heavy-handed way the government here is proceeding with industrial development at any price.

Ethiopia Declares State of Emergency, Internet Blocked

That Sinking Feeling

It was the eve of my first post-Work-For-Da-Man trip. I’d spent two years in a kind of purgatory, required to bill 30 hours a week, haunted with ever-changing business processes and a persistent feeling that I wasn’t good enough, would never be good enough, was too old to be good enough.

As soon as I handed in my resignation, JF and I took off to start a pilgrimage through France, ten days of walking El Camino. We frolicked in freedom the whole summer. But I knew I wanted to leverage what I’d learned at The For-Profit for my overseas clients, particularly RCRD/CBR, the folks I’ve been working with since 2004.

What follows is the journal entry I wrote just before that trip was supposed to begin. It chronicles the panic and self-doubt that plagued me– that possibly plagues all of us when we are not comfortably at home where everything makes sense.

Sometime in October or early November, 2014

By Friday, I was getting frantic about my trip to Nepal. I’ve been trying to connect with the folks there for about a month– and have heard nary a word. Oh, Hari Shyam has sent friendly greetings, left his cell phone number and proposed a rousing game of badminton as soon as I arrive. He even offered to book a hotel for me. That right there sent my danger-warning-red-flag antennae up to Red Alert.

Have they not replied because they are embarrassed because they really don’t want me to come, I’ve offended them in some way, I’ve made some cultural faux pas that will screw up the whole deal? They used to like me but now they don’t? I asked if somebody could pick me up at the airport because I arrive at nearly 8pm, normally too late to get into the hostel, if there is even anybody staying there at all these days. No word.

We discussed the situation in depth with our Nepali friends. They thought it was not normal– that it would be rude in Nepal, as it would be here, to have agreed to receive a guest and then not to respond to emails or Facebook messages or Skype. Maybe they expect you to be raising money for them, and since you are not coming with funding, they are ignoring you, my friend speculated. Then, most kindly, he offered to call his brother and to arrange somebody to pick me up and put me up at their house for a couple of days until I could get the picture of reality more in focus.

Finally, I sent an “a little bit nervous,” “a little bit worried” email off to my principal contact there, Surya. And JF and I started brainstorming for a Plan B. He pointed out, and of course he was right, that we don’t actually KNOW that any of those fears are indeed reality. That even if they ARE, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t patch things up once I am face to face with them. That what I actually do, while seeming to be all about technology, is to create and maintain intercultural relationships– to bridge those gulfs that appear because we are actually not totally all alike.

Even so, the black cloud that passed over me was formidable. I took deep breaths to relieve a constriction in my chest and that horrible sinking feeling that all our plans– not just mine but the plans of the two friends I have encouraged to come with me– could very well be nothing but air, a puff of smoke that could dissipate into the void.

JF and I got takeout from our favorite restaurant, the Turkish place on Main St. We took it over to our next-door neighbor’s house and ate and chattered about the whole situation. By that time, I had– like one of those dolls with a weighted bottom that you smack and it bobs over and then bobs right back up– righted myself. I’d seen that there were at least two possible directions to go, even if my client there has completely abandoned the project of working with me. I’d seen that flying into the unknown is an integral part of what I do, what all of us who work internationally and on the ground, do. That I’d get my phone set up, and start finding lodging and start working on my Nepali and even if the worst came to the worst, I could handle it.

That night, while I slept fitfully, I got two emails from Surya. Short but clear: Yes, we are expecting you. Yes, we will pick you up at the airport. Yes, we have a place for you to stay that first night. Yes, we are looking forward to your visit.

I stopped sinking. I also realized, to my chagrin, that at least part of my panic had to do with the fact that I had PUBLICIZED this project. This is the first international project for WorldsTouch in 4 years. I’ve told EVERYBODY about it. I was, at least part of me, totally afraid of WHAT PEOPLE WOULD THINK. Gosh, me. Who thinks she is immune to the approvals or disapprovals of the crowd. Is not immune at all. I was, as much as chagrined at my possible cultural clumsiness, embarrassed to have presented myself as somebody with a client in Nepal, where I was going on a plane to realize a collaboration. To have presented myself as a professional at this, and then…what? turned into a tourist like everybody else. Destined to sink like a fraudulent nobody…in front of my professional tribe.

So all of that was, for the most part, just pre-trip nerves. Even so, I want to document the whole range of emotions and thought processes that accompanied it. They need to be part of the record– possibly transformed into a paragraph warning my future self and my colleagues that flying low to the ground and within the spirit of the Unknown that these moments of doubt are normal.

Into the Real Place, Slowly

It’s always good to experience the real life of a place, even if you are not good at it.

I was looking at the load-shedding schedule for today: 6am – 11am, 4pm -8pm. Nine hours without electricity. My laptop is charged; my phone has enough juice to get to 11am. My thinking is here, in the rhythm of here. My clients provide me with a room and meals (when there is a cook who comes in.) This keeps me from being utterly out of touch with what it is to be FROM here, to be of this place, with its own reality and hardships. People find ways to avoid the hardships. The capital city of this country can’t supply its citizens with clean water, or any water? Here, they circumvent that, if they can afford it, with the water trucks. If you can’t afford it, ah…what to do? Here in Bhaktapur, there are water taps, known as hitis, where people bring buckets, wash their hair, take a bath, wash dishes, and get water for the house.

Some years back, I remember, they tried to get everybody to harvest rainwater. I’ve seen in Bermuda, where there REALLY isn’t any water, the sparkling white stepped roofs leading to the pipes, leading to the barrels. Here, the “they” were probably some international NGO or the UN. It didn’t take on the widespread— the rain is perhaps too unpredictable except during the monsoon, and water requirements are on a more demanding schedule. So people buy water like we all buy electricity. Only here the electricity forces us into a schedule, published in the newspaper, the Load-Shedding Schedule. I watched at night from the roof terrace as the lights of the valley marched across, coming on in swaths, going out in swaths. The roof terrace is part of the normal architecture of this real life. It’s where you hang clothes to dry, to grow plants in pots, to escape for a cigarette so everyone can pretend they don’t know you smoke.

This “here” has no air-conditioning or heat— not that both are unavailable; of course, the major hotels have both. I can deal with the lack of air-conditioning. It’s not that hot here at 3,500 feet in the biosphere; and there’s always a bucket I can fill with water. If the water trucks have come. The lack of heat drove me out of the room and into a hotel the winter of 2015. I continued to sleep here, dressed in every piece of clothing I owned. But I worked at Shiva Guest House, where they provided propane heaters around the dining room. The hotel’s job is to protect people like me from this specific real life. The hotel provides a bubble that feels more like the life we usually live, an expensive undertaking, except of course we can afford it because we have powerful money.

That’s just a fact, our powerful money— one that brings its own inconveniences that annoy and often baffle us. Why do I attract more touts, would-be guides, beggars, rapacious “holy” men, purveyors of rugs, paintings, bells, gadgets, bangles and do-dads? Simple: my powerful money is visible and apparent to everybody, including me. So, sometimes, I just hide. In the warmth of Shiva’s dining room. In a hotel. In my own room. David Whyte, in this morning’s reading, talks about the usefulness of hiding. “Hiding,” he says, “is a way of staying alive…a way of holding ourselves until we are ready to come into the light.” In fact, it may be the only way we can gradually slip into the real life of a place, with hardships we aren’t any good at. The real life of here:

  • The sun is out this monsoon season morning, so I should throw my clothes in a bucket with laundry powder I bought the second day, cover the clothes with water and get them washed, rinsed, wrung out and up on the line while the sun shines.
  • I escape the persistent annoying people because I can speak enough of this language to tell them that I don’t want a taxi, I’m staying here in town. I don’t want a guide because I spent six months here before they were even born.
  • I know the price of a taxi to Kathmandu is $8, but I pay $10 because I have powerful money. I try to think in Rupees, though. That’s more of being here.
  • Breakfast is a dish of some kind of peas, a boiled egg (but the salt shaker is empty), a slice of square, American-style white bread, a tiny banana. The white bread has an ultra-thin layer of some kind of apple jelly.
  • Lunch will be dal-bhat-tarkari, always lentils in a soup, rice and vegetables, heavily coated with various spices that I would not recognize except for having tasted them so often here. There might be meat, but then I’ve walked through the market and…meat…ehhhh. Even chicken looks unhappy dead in the stalls. Real life definitely has limits.
  • I can call America with my Nepali SIM card in my iPhone, which costs about $10 an hour, but it’s better than Skype’s dropped calls and garbled crackling sounds. But everybody here is on Viber.
  • Everything takes three times longer to get done, from figuring out what the client really needs to simply signing up for a free trial of the Nonprofit Starter Pack in Salesforce.
  • People do not schedule or plan the way I’m used to.
  • People are not on top of their email every day.
  • In short: Communication is a puzzle that must be solved, but is surprisingly elusive.
  • I can ride without a helmet on the back of a motorcycle, but the driver always has to have one on. Go figure that one.

I walk and drive past the temporary shelters that have housed the earthquake-made-homeless people for over a year. It seems that, as usual, the hardship was not evenly distributed. Not everyone lost their home. Not everyone can afford to rebuild. Over 73,000 people have lodged complaints that they were excluded from the re-building grants that were supposed to be for everyone who found themselves looking at a pile of rubble that used to be where they lived. Mainly it was poor people with older houses, people already in greater deprivation. The very real question for me everywhere I travel, about them, about the middle class, about the rich here: “How do they manage?” Because we all manage, even with our great wealth, even without our great wealth. I’ll tell you: Here, we sit in the dark, faces illuminated by two or three cell phones where fingers are messaging someone not here, and sing. We make jokes that my poor Nepali can’t begin to understand and we laugh. Even I laugh, because laughter is universal, and contagious.

It was, after all, a gas!

I want to call this a near-death experience, but of course, it was nothing of the sort, in the end. I called it a kind of rehearsal. It was nothing short of the worst three hours I could ever remember spending, in terms of just pure physical pain, short of childbirth. Still, it was a wild, wild ride, and I did get a chance to imagine, for a moment, that that could be the end.

Monday, coming back from the weekend in snake-infested Rajganj, I came down with a fever that lasted all day. Everyone told me it was the abrupt change in temperature, coming up the mountain. Made sense to me.

Friday, I woke up feeling slightly, I dunno, out of kilter. The feeling built slowly over the course of the day. At 4 o’clock, it was too uncomfortable to sit at my desk. The pain started on the walk back, all 130 stairsteps of the way to the room. I sat for about half an hour in Ben’s room, talking about the day, but my back was stubbornly painful, short little spasms, so I went back to my room, took a pain killer with Codeine and lay down. For a few minutes, I was stabbed by a series of rolling pains that finally subsided. I began to relax. Back pain is an old adversary of mine; I know it well. I thought that I’d found the right pain-free position. But no.

One of my former colleagues, Sulo, came to talk about her new job and I motioned her to take a seat. As she talked the pain seemed to focus on my lower chest area, like a horrendous stitch in my side. It got worse and worse. Soon I could only breathe in small little gulps; taking a full breath caused a spasm of astounding pain. I took a couple more pain pills. These are the pills that can practically erase any of the pain I’ve ever felt—back totally out, neck in a pretzel, finger shut in a car door, anything. But nada.

This went on for over an hour. Sulo, of course, felt helpless, but she kept up a steady stream of patter that let me focus on the words rather than what was going on in my body.

I began to realize that this was not a back out of joint, that I was taking shallower and shallower breaths in an attempt to avoid the stabbing pains that kept coming, that it was breathing itself that was precipitating the spasms. About then I started wishing I’d read those stupid ads detailing the five danger signs of heart attack. As the second hour wore on, the pain seemed to get worse and worse. I couldn’t sit up or turn on my side. I did childbirth breaths—short and shallow—to get enough air into my system.

Finally, we managed to reach a doctor, a Rotarian friend who, when he heard me on the phone, rasping out symptoms between little gasps of breath, said he’d be right over.

The first thought was that I’ve had a very good life and that while I didn’t get everything done, I’d done okay. The second was that I needed to get the passwords to my Password Vault, laptop with the household finances and desktop computer to my husband. We got that task done just as the doctor arrived. (Yes, docs do make house calls! The disappearance of this service in our world probably signaled the end of civilization but we didn’t notice.)

He took my vital signs and said apart from a somewhat elevated blood pressure, everything checked out as fine. My heart behaving normally, pulse okay. About then, the pain killers kicked in and I could turn to my side and breathe. And, blissfully, sleep. By the next evening, it was as if nothing had happened. Absolutely no residual spasms. What the heck?

I finally diagnosed the whole episode as a result of my stomach so distended with gas that it was pressing on my lungs. And decided that yoga for digestive health should be on my workout schedule from here on out.

It turns out that while I thought I might actually be reaching the end of my days on earth, that possibility never crossed my husband’s mind. My insistence on giving him passwords didn’t make the light bulb go on in his head. (Sometimes, one’s culture protects one from disturbing thoughts. The French can’t dictate their passwords, since they are all about 24 letter/number combinations long—impossible to memorize, so they just keep them pasted to their computers.)

Two days later, out walking, I pondered on the lessons I learned from that terrifying two or three hours. First, of all, I’m not particularly afraid of death. I found the prospect of letting it all go not that difficult. I was afraid of more pain, of how I was going to get to the hospital. I kept hearing that the longer it takes to get help, the poorer one’s chances of survival.

Second, in spite of the pain and fears, I maintained a presence of mind—call the doctor, pass over the passwords.

And third, that sweet sweet taste of the preciousness of life that floods back in once the crisis is past. Everything about life coming in sharp, beautiful focus, even the warts.

the stupa at Swayambunath


Dateline: New York City, Grad Student Apartment. Outside, 22 degrees F, -6 degrees C, with a wind chill factor that considerably reduces the effective temperature. In Kathmandu today, it was 50 degrees F. The deepest winter cold is over there.

Today, I stood in my daughter’s shower, in a warm bathroom, with the shower on “as hot as I can stand it” for at least 20 minutes. I had all the hot water I wanted. I soaped my hair twice. I just stood there, thinking about the way my life has been punctuated over the past two months, and the way those punctuations will change, and what that means.

In Bhaktapur and throughout Nepal, lives are punctuated by scarcity of electricity– the hours it’s on, the hours it’s off dictating all manner of things including whether I can get a Cappucino or have to make do with a Cafe Latte at Shiva Guest House. Electricity also dictates how I maintain my electronics– will it come on in the afternoon while I’m out and charge my computer, or do I need to bring the computer with me to Shiva for lunch, where they have battery-powered electrical sockets for charging iPads and iPhones and MacBook Pros.

My devices punctuate all my days– keeping the Nook, the battery pack, the other toys and tools charged requires daily care and attention.

I never did get the full rhythm of the scarce hot water at the training center where I had my room. The water was never hot in the morning or evening– but IF the sun had shone all day, I got a couple of good hot buckets out of the spigot, enough to wash me, my hair and my clothes without freezing my fingers (or the rest of me.)

Every excursion into the world is punctuated by mealtimes– frequently different from the mealtimes at home, often quite different foods. For the first month or so, I was content (and so was my friend Susan, after she arrived in mid-December) with the Nepali twice-a-day meal of rice, lentil soup, and some spicy vegetable. But once we started getting sick– she with typhoid, me with a version of E. coli, we moved out of the training center and started eating from the Shiva Guest House menu– yogurt with fruit, grilled cheese sandwiches, stir-fried vegetables with rice. We added tofu, experimented with various chicken and meat ball dishes.

Some travelers spend their extended visits in a place trying out different restaurants. Not us. And not me in general. Once I’ve found a place that has a varied and tasty menu, I’m loyal, especially if that place also has the Crossroads quality that Shiva has.

And that brings me to the final idea of punctuation– the way our traveling life is punctuated by the comings and goings of other travelers. When I’m staying and taking all my meals in the CBR/RCRD training center, I don’t meet very many other travelers. In the past, I’ve stopped in at Shiva in the mornings for a latte. I met one or two people on the stoop outside the restaurant, but not many.

On this trip, because Susan stayed on at Shiva after she had mostly recovered, I continued to take my meals up there with her. Mornings, the long-term guests — like Masa, the retired landscape architect who was staying for over a month– would come down for breakfast and we’d discuss the excursion plans of the day. Evenings, we’d all gather again for dinner, adding new and interesting people to our numbers.

Travelers stayed for months or for just a few days. Some we regretted when they left, some it was more of a relief– we didn’t have to be explicit about our shifting attitudes the way you do in real life. On the road, people just leave and that is the end of that, thank goodness. (I’m thinking of one particular guy we met who spent the afternoon caressing his Nepali knife blade and talking about everything he’d bought or wanted to buy.)

The Crossroads places– a town or a border crossing or a friendly atmosphere in a hostel or a cafe, where people on the road meet easily, where conversation flows, advice is given and taken– about the map, the road ahead or behind, the afflictions and their cures, the locals and their charms and foibles. Crossroads places are rarely entirely local, either in cuisine or clientele. They give travelers a kind of respite from and also a window out into the culture of the place.

Shiva was that kind of place for us on this trip. Ellen moved there because the internet was better there than anywhere else. Susan moved there because she needed to rest and eat well. I made it my place for meals and ate mashed potatoes and cheese and yogurt and fruit and French toast. We all made friends there– people we’ll see again, people we’ll always remember and tell stories about, people who punctuated our traveling lives.



I’ve acquired an entirely different perspective on heat, heating, and getting through the winter.

I have never thought about what winter is like in Nepal. There are places where it’s just warm all winter and everybody goes around as usual. There are others where it’s cold in the winter and they heat maybe even just one room at a time, usually the kitchen.

In Turkey, in the mountains overlooking the Black Sea, they have a hole in the floor that has fire and then coals. They bake bread on the sides of the hole, then put on the tea and cook the food for the day. And then they cover it up with metal and blankets and everyone sits in a circle with their feet pointing to the warm place.

Some way to get warm.

When I stayed in Nepal in the late 70s, I made it through probably December with a thick quilt stuffed with wool and sleeping in the room with the fire pit. I woke up to Maya, my hostess, making me bed tea and Helbadhur, her husband, squatting on the water basin flicking water in all nine mother goddess directions.

Early on this trip– winter 2015– I went out and bought a gas heater, thinking, “Well, that settles it for staying warm.” But I was wrong about that. The heater malfunctioned, the gas shortage became acute and then critical, and everyone else just wore more layers.

I felt like a spoiled Westerner. And indeed was more or less gently reminded that nobody else had heat in their houses, not even the rich. The concept of central heating is a kind of strange fantasy– the people here know we have houses with central heat, but it seems like really such a waste of money to them.

The gas cylinder I paid for cost about 3/4 of a teacher’s salary for a month. Okay, not a full-time teacher, but somebody I know living in a rented apartment with his wife and child.

When Ramesh, my Nepali cohort here, told me that the government shortened the number of hours people work from 10-5 to 10-4, I had a momentary thought – “How the heck do people get anything done around here anyway? If it isn’t a festival or a family obligation, it’s a shortened workweek!” But then when the cold gets truly bone-chilling, who can think straight anyway?

I wonder if the old architecture and the old ways weren’t actually warmer? The animals lived inside the houses, on the ground floor, and the kitchen had an open fire, even if all the fuel they had to burn was shocks of hay.

I’m often surprised at the local festivals, and how they correspond to what people have to live through. During the monsoon, when the water coursed through the back alleys that people used as toilets before the arrival of bathrooms, and flowed into the rivers where they washed their clothes and took their drinking water, people said that the mother goddesses protecting the city had gone away. And then, when the rain stopped and the harvest was in, they celebrate the return of the mother goddesses.

Likewise, in Swasthani Purnima, a monthlong festival through the coldest month, people seem to be deliberately seeking cold, almost challenging it to get to them. They leave their houses, are required to go barefoot, are allowed only very bland rice and vegetables without spices once a day. They take cold baths in the river.

In a procession dedicated the god who oversees this festival, one man dressed only in a loin cloth rolled sideways through the streets, doing penance of some sort, showing his willingness to sacrifice for his need and desire.

So even if you feel you are not quite up to the sacrifice of these devotees, their example is inspirational. If they can brave the cold without shoes and sleeping outside on a concrete floor, surely I can put on another layer, drink a glass of hot water and stop my complaining.

And the days are not really cold. The average daytime temperature during the coldest months is 66. The nights are all above freezing. It’s the nightly lows and the average humidity – above 80% in November, December and January – that make the cold so chilling.

I’ll be happy to get back to my central heating– and hot running water at all hours of the day and night, and pizza, and fast internet that works just about all the time. I need, though, to carry this new awareness with me: that people live through, they accomodate weather, they deal with gas shortages and electricity that stays off 8-10 hours a day. They manage. I stand in awe, really.

Device Drill

KanBanChargingOne of the challenges of Nepal is the unreliability of the electricity.  If you have, as I do, multiple devices that all need to be charged enough to be of service, you need some kind of routine to make sure everything chugs along for you.

I have one outlet near my desk and another one over near the bathroom. Since I have a multi-slot charger, I only need to use the one outlet. Besides the one near the bathroom is also dangerously close to a water source, so I prefer not to use it.

If my MacBook Pro reaches 50% battery, I plug it in. This is a beauty of a machine. One charge will take me as many as 6 – 8 hours, so if it is ready to go, I can slide through just about any electrical blackout Nepal can throw at me.

I have a battery pack that can charge all my devices if I’m traveling orIMG_1463 if I’ve forgotten to keep the phone or the iPad topped up. I make a point to charge the battery pack on second priority, then the iPhone, the iPad and the Nook march along behind. I also have a Nepali phone that my hosts here had lying around unused, so while it doesn’t have the smart-phone bells and whistles, it calls the people I need to call and rings when they call me. That’s kind of how phones used to work, didn’t they?

I keep a light on in the room during the day, as a signal in case the lights go out. That’s when I need to make sure I’m all charged.

What a difference between this and the first time I came to Nepal. All my reflections took written form in hardcover books bought from dusty office supplies vendors in the market. Phone calls took all day at the post offices where desperate Iranians pushed ahead and jumped the lines. All our mail lived and died in little bundles in what we called Post Restante, piles of mail that were sorted by what the postal workers in far-flung places guessed was your last name.  I had a Nikon camera and 80 boxes of film, both slides and prints, though mostly slides. I never saw a photo I took for 18 months, until I came home and had them all developed.

Living in Two (or more) Time Zones

[Background sound effects: The group across the that meets for loudspeaker yoga and chanting in the mornings is making tiger screaming noises.]

JF mentioned last night how strange it was for me to be heading off to bed on a day that, for him, was just beginning. And this morning, I’m struck by how Time feels as though it is lagging, lagging when I realize that I’m up and thinking about my new day, and he’s still slowly ending yesterday.

I have written before about it a little, but it is difficult to articulate. When did this strange sensation first occur? Telegraph? Telephone? It’s as though Time is tugging at me from both ends– yesterday lingers and lingers because, even though I was done with it, JF whose being in time I spend a lot of my mental energy with, was just beginning it. Having his coffee. Doing his morning exercise routine.

And today pulls away at me from the other side. It IS my morning, after all. It is MY Thanksgiving Day, all foggy and filled with, now, the sound of OM over the loudspeaker. I’m hearing the nurses-in-training in the hostel splashing water in their bathrooms and talking to one another. Doors opening and feet headed upstairs to the roof terrace and breakfast.

Ah, they’re back to the Tiger Screaming again. And then the all practicing Laughing. This is my morning. The ringing of the temple bells. The Invocation of Peace.

Meanwhile, my friends at home are going over their grocery shopping lists…everything all set? Possibly some pumpkin pies are already cooling on the stove or the back deck. Maybe a last glass of wine, someone asks someone else.

I wonder, thinking about it, whether this could be one of the reasons that people find it so difficult to keep in touch when I’m off on a long trip. This time, with Facebook, it seems easier (damn it for being the tool we need and love and also evil) but could it be that the dim awareness of this Time-disconnect has a kind of unsettling feel to it?

It does to me when I’m not actively LIVING in both places at once. It does when I’m not talking daily on Skype or going back and forth with emails in “your morning, my evening.”

But perhaps that isn’t it exactly. Perhaps we just instinctively and naturally live in the PLACE we’re in, and when somebody leaves that place, they functionally de-materialize. Even when Judy goes down to the beach for a week, I immediately lose track of when she’s supposed to come back. It’s as though she gets all fuzzy, even though she’s in the same time zone.

I think we’ve entered the Time and Space Are The Same Thing discussion. Not truly a philosopher, and hearing the voices upstairs having breakfast and feeling my stomach telling me loudly that I need to be there as well… I will put off THAT rumination. Consider this the beginning of a conversation.

Bus Trip Back from Pokhara

[Email to Jean-Francois] It was a grueling ordeal from beginning to end, but I kept repeating that the difference between an ordeal and an adventure is attitude. The road is really bad and you know what the driving is like, passing passing, even when you can’t see around the corner. So my insides were sloshed all around in my body as the bus jolted along the potholes. I couldn’t decide whether that was making me sicker or not.

I finally went to the back of the bus and took up the whole big back seat. That seemed to help the most. I dozed a bit, and sort of meditated on my insides sloshing up and down. I woke up feeling better. I’m still coughing some and I have that diarrhea that feels like pissing out the butt. I am having black tea with sugar, but I was so hungry from having one piece of toast this morning that I poured myself a helping of those hot Indian snacks. It may make me sicker too, but what the hell.

I sat next to this young Israeli guy who totally agreed with me that it’s all about attitude. I said, “It’s harder to have a good attitude when you’re sick.” And he said,”I was on a 17 hour van ride in Mongolia and spent the whole time puking. I look back on that as an adventure.” He said he sat in a window seat, but when he was throwing up, they would stop the van for a few minutes for him. Don’t you just love travelers! You feel like shit, but they puked for 17 hours in Mongolia. Just perfect.

I spent right around $100 altogether for this four-day trip to Pokhara. The plane was going to cost $119, but the bus was about $9 instead. If I could have gotten out of Pokhara before next Thursday, I’d have stayed just to avoid the bus. But nothing to do but just put my head down and get through it. I have apparently survived.