Saturday, November 25, 2006

Greeting Dawn on the Ganges.

"Varanasi, the city of Shiva, is one of the holiest cities in India." (Lonely Planet) Pre-dawn we rushed through the streets in our excellent private car from our hotel in the Cantonment to the Old City and the Ganges River. We are drawn to the many "Ghats" that line the western bank of the river. A Ghat is a flight of steps leading from the river edge to palaces once owned by maharajas (rulers of royalty and/or wealth). Locals come to the ghats to bath, meditate, pray or simply congregate. Perhaps most interesting are the "burning ghats" where bodies (of those lucky enough to die in Varanasi) are publicly cremated.

The Captain of our tour boat (pictured) described five classes of people who are not cremated, but simpy sunk into the river whole, with weights attached: pregnant women, babies, victims of Cobra bites, holy men and lepers. (When I suggested mob "snitches" also belonged on the list, he didn't seem to understand.) Later, we came across one of these half-submerged corpses floating about 3 yards from two bathing women. I guess the weights didn't quite hold.

The Most Trusted Man in Varanasi.

A private driver in India is a luxury beyond compare. Ours is Bholu, pictured here with the gleaming pearl car with which he ferries us safely through the chaotic streets of Varanasi. Rules of the road barely exist here; there is no hierarchy--cars, buses, bicycle-taxis, motorcycle-taxis, pedestrians, cows, water buffalo, dogs and goats, arbitrarily make their own way, utterly brazen against the intentions, actions or safety of anyone, being or beast. We would love to walk, and maybe we'll get to in some of the smaller towns and villages of India; for now, we're just happy to have our driver, Bholu.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Thanksgiving Dinner at the Taj Hotel, Varanasi, India.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving Day, on our first day in India, we are giving thanks for our safe journey and for this once in a lifetime opportunity to travel and see so many other countries. We are also thankful on this holiday for our family and friends whose loving kindness and support have filled our hearts. We celebrated by having a vegetarian Indian dinner at the Taj Hotel in Varanasi (pictured).

We owe a special thanks to our friend, Michael Bourne, who has spent countless hours helping us prepare for our trip to India, and for providing us with the opportunity to volunteer with his project for impoverished children. He has opened the door to India and to meeting key individuals working towards a better life for these children, including a special school for disabled children. In addition to sharing with us his vast knowledge of India, the culture and practical information, he has arranged for personal guides and even a driver for us. He also gave us $300 to spend on any items we think are necessary and beneficial to the children and the school.

The young girls often need undergarments and some children may need medical care. Also, sometimes money is needed for repairs to the school building, such as the roof. Although Michael said he has many ideas on how this money can be used, he wants us to follow our own intuition. We will spend this next week at the school in Bodhgaya, and one additional day visiting the “differently able” children’s school in the Kiran Village. We are not sure yet how much assistance we will offer, but we will be able to spend time with the children, and hopefully find out how they are doing in school and if their basic needs are being met. We feel fortunate to be able to work with this project, and we hope we can find some way to be of help.

Thank you for all the wonderful e-mails we have received – we cherish these words of good wishes during our travels and love hearing about your lives too!

Nepali Children

Saying good bye to Nepal, we salute some of the children we met along the way.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

More Adventures In Chitwan (Nepal).

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Because I love zoos, I’ve seen my share of rhinoceroses over the years. But the zoo does little to match the exhilaration one feels on spotting one in the jungle. First, you feel a bit of triumph, because the Park covers roughly 400 square miles and rhinos can be hard to spot. But you’re also seized with a mixture of awe and fear, especially when you realize that, if the rhino charges—and they do charge—only 30 yards and two guides (armed with sticks—no guns) stand between you and the angry animal. Our guide later told us that over the years five of his fellow guides were killed in rhino attacks and his parents refused him permission to be become a guide because of the risk.

We’ve made two sojourns into the Park and the nearby “Buffer Zone.” We spent the night in an observation tower which, provided you remain quiet, can provide unrivaled views of wildlife in the late evening and early morning hours. Not to brag (ok, I’m bragging), but in the last 24 hours we’ve seen, in the wild: rhinos, elephants, a mongoose, 2 different owls, male peacocks (I didn’t know they could fly!), buffalo, 2 different species of monkey (rhesus macaque and langur), crocodile, several species of ducks and birdlife (egrets, kingfishers, hornbills).

As part of the observation tower experience, we ate a typical Nepali vegetarian dinner with a family in their clay and grass dwelling (pictured). I was surprised to learn that they don’t have HBO. Heather also had fun participating in the daily ritual of bathing the elephants in the river.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Two Tourists and a Baby Elephant (Royal Chitwan Nat’l. Park, Nepal).

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We took a delayed flight from Pokhara to the Royal Chitwan National Park, and right off the bat we visited the Elephant Breeding Center. As you can see, this afforded us an opportunity to interact very closely with baby and adult Asian Elephants. We have very mixed feelings on the training and use of these elephants, but tried to set these aside and simply enjoy the experience. As you can see, we did!

Trekking and “Empowering the Women of Nepal.”

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We’ve been lucky to be healthy so far on this trip, but we finally had to pull out the first aid kit: somewhere between Bhaktapur and Pokhara, Alex pulled a muscle in his back and could barely walk or move without hunching over in pain. We planned to trek together in Pokhara, and Alex encouraged me to go without him while he recuperated.

Pokhara is situated on a lake surrounded by the towering snow-capped Himalayan Mountain range, and is famous for trekking the Annapurna Circuit. “Three Sisters Adventure Trekking,” a female guide service was created by the three Chhetri sisters in response to the gross inequality of women in Nepal. Their training program, “EWN” (“Empowering the Women of Nepal”), teaches women to become trek guides to gain economic independence. They say: “Women do not need sympathy, they need opportunity. Why not hire a woman trekking guide?” (So this is what the running girls can do when we retire!)

My guide, Madhu (pictured), was a diminutive (even shorter than me!), 36-year-old single mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 7. She explained to me that the “Three Sisters” program gave her the opportunity to earn more money as a trekking guide to support her family. Madhu told me how she had wanted to “go to university,” but had to work to help support her brother and three sisters. We discussed the lingering caste system in Nepal, and the strong preference for male children to support the family, although she admitted that her own brother, who now earns good money, does not help support anyone else in the family.

Over the next two days we hiked through Gurung farm villages, climbed mountain trails and slept in a small guest house, all under the shadow of the snow-peaked Himalayas. I enjoyed every part of the trek: the farm villages; the warm smiles and “Namaste” greetings from the gentle Nepali people; the buffalo who would gaze at me with big brown eyes; and Madhu sharing with me about her family, her children, her financial struggles and her dreams for the future. The magnificent Himalayan mountain range added a powerful presence and I yearned to hike further.

The guest house where we slept cost 90 rupes ($1.20). There was no electricity and one common squat toilet. A wood burning fire in the kitchen was used for cooking and to heat water. I bought a bucket of hot water for 50 rupes (75 cents) to take a “shower.” The guest house was run by a friendly couple who had a young baby boy and two young men (pictured). I was impressed how the four adults shared in the care of the baby, playing with him, changing his diaper, swinging him to sleep in his basket and giving him lots of kisses. I’ve decided this ratio of 4 adults to one baby is perfect. My vegetable curry and daal dinner were delicious and I slept soundly.

I felt so happy and peaceful staying at this guest house and I only wished Alex could be with me to experience it. Alex and I are already planning to come back to Nepal and to do a longer trek together on our next trip. Yes, we are both in love with Nepal.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Bhaktapur, Nepal (Revised)

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Though just a few kilometers outside Kathmandu, the town of Bhaktapur feels a little bit like a different country. This is due largely to the city's loosely-enforced regulation of motor cars and motorcycles within the city walls, making it something of a quiet oasis. The town is home also to significant craftspeople (wood carving, paper, fabrics).

I secured a reservation in the much sought after room-at-the-top of the Bhadgaon Guest House at the princely sum of $26 (US) per night, including breakfast. The room boasted a private sitting terrace and a first class view of the tallest temple of Nepal, the Nayatapola Temple. It also boasted "hot" water, which we experienced only rarely.

It was at the Bhadgaon, too, that we met Binod and Hari (pictured), who will inspire us long after we leave. Both boys work about 20 hours a day, everyday, but do so with inspiring enthusiasm. They sing! One morning, when we could not get the promised hot water, Binod eagerly sprang up to our room sang to himself some Nepali folk tune as he fiddled with the plumbing and fixed the problem.

Why do I find them inspiring? The enthusiasm with which they greet their jobs. I know that nobody wants to hear me sing at work (could be grounds for a hostile work environment lawsuit), but it's good to be reminded that there are other, better ways to greet the drudgery of work.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Happy Birthday, Mary!!

Mom's birthday is November 14th. Happy Birthday, Mom!! We miss you!

We Reached Kathmandu, Now Where’s Bob Seger?

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Nepal is wonderful. The Craigies’ generous ambassador to this subcontinent, Michael Bourne, provided us with an applicable acronym before we came here: “Nepal stands for N[ever] E[nding] P[eace] A[nd] L[ove]” and so far it seems appropriate. Our lodgings are a small hotel on the edge of Thamel, an area that thrives on visitors and trekkers. The neighborhood is loud, the streets chaotic, but the people are warm and, though generally quite poor, very eager to get to know Westerners. “Namaste,” the greeting you hear at every turn, can fairly be translated as “I greet the divine within you.”

The general consensus is that one must get out of Kathmandu to experience the real Nepal, so we’re making the short journey today to nearby Bhaktapur. We’ll relax there for a couple of days, before moving onto Pokhara, where we’ll probably do a short trek.

During our first full day in Kathmandu, we visited both Swayambhunath and the Durbar Square. Swayambhunath is called the “Monkey Temple” because there is a large troop of monkeys, large and small, who make the temple their home. The Durbar Square, an UNESCO World Heritage site, could be interesting, but we were so mobbed by would-be “tour guides” that we fled the Square as quickly as we could. -Alex

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Grand Palace, Bangkok, Thailand.

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I doubt our pictures can adequately capture the opulence of Thailand’s Grand Palace. I am really enjoying Thailand. The food is interesting, particularly how the Thais have mastered the balance of sweet and spicy. The people are warm and friendly. The absence of cigarette smoke and loud, obnoxious public spitting here in Thailand is refreshing after almost a month in China. We’re flying tomorrow to Kathmandu, Nepal, where we’ll spend a week and move on to India. After about a month in India, we’ll return here to Thailand to explore more of the country.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Buddha, Supine.

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Exit Hong Kong, enter Bangkok, Thailand. I scored us a cheap reservation at River View Guesthouse, the only budget hotel with a view (and a very nice one) of the Chao Phraya River. For its cost category, the rooms were large and clean. Yesterday we arrived, checked in, explored some of the city and took care of various errands, including stops at the post office and travel agent (we’re trying to find a reasonable flight to Kathmandu, Nepal). After dinner, we came back to the hotel, only to find that all paths leading to the entrance were flooded by 2-3 feet of not-entirely-clean Thai water. Shoes off, pants rolled up, we waded about 50 feet to the hotel, where the staff greeted us with, “Welcome to the swimming pool!”

It turns out the Thai government has (whether out of necessity or otherwise—we’re not yet clear) raised the water level of the Chao Phraya River from the north, causing flooding to some of the property bordering the river bank, including our fine hotel. This is apparently a rare occurrence.

When we awoke in the morning and I realized the water had not yet receded, I decided to move us somewhere else (Heather, travel trooper, would have stayed on and braved the flooding because she does love a view!). Due to the flooding, not even a taxi could reach the hotel’s front door, so we strapped on our luggage and backpacks, Heather put on rubber wading boots, and waded back out to dry land and caught a taxi to our new hotel, the Manohra. (So glad our luggage with wheels can be converted to backpacks!)

Even though a good chunk of our first full day in Thailand was spent relocating to a dry hotel, we did take the ferry upriver to see Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. Then we crossed the river and took in Wat Arun, the Temple of Dawn. Tomorrow, I’m taking a Thai cooking class. -Alex

Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Faces of China's Future.

My father, a professional cameraman (a Director of Photography, actually) traveled quite extensively throughout Asia during his lifetime. He brought back with him countless portraits he took of the people he encountered during his travels. Not only do I lack his photographic talent, but I am too shy to ask anyone I encounter for the opportunity of a photograph. An exception is the children, who are just too eager to have their picture taken, especially by a Westerner. -Alex

Wok Cooking: A Contact Sport!

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Don't try this at home. I plan to take cooking classes during our trip whenever possible. After much searching, I found a one day intensive class here in Hong Kong. Martha, my teacher, sheparded me through classic Chinese dishes from this region, including squid stir fried with broccoli and yellow chives, sweet and sour pork, egg fried rice with crispy garlic and steamed tofu and fish fillet. Though she taught primarily the "restaurant" method (which tends to rely on more oil, MSG, etc.), she carefully pointed out how Chinese cooks do things a little different at home.

Turns out the Chinese like to use this gadget called a "wok." Who knew!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Hanging With the Pandas.

We visited the Giant Panda Breeding Research Base, about 10 km outside of ChengDu. In addition to seeing several pandas, ranging from newborn infants to lazy elders, there was a panda museum and a film about panda breeding habits so graphic that it made me blush.

(Comment by Heather: Most days Alex will say to me, "I want to sleep in, so don't rush me in the morning." But, when it came time to visit the pandas, he sure changed his tune. He read in our guidebooks that the best time to see the pandas is during their morning feedings. Alex was so excited about the opportunity to see the pandas in action, that he kept telling me to be ready first thing in the morning because he wasn't going to wait for me! And, to make things worse, he kept singing "Its Panda Time," in M.C. Hammer rapper style).

Sichuan Hot Pot, or the Night My Mouth Burst Into Flames.

“Hot Pot” is best described as a boiling broth of chilis, Sichuan peppers and God knows what else calculated to fry your intestines. Into the center of the table, over a fire, is set a bowl. Ingredients of your choice—beef, pork, mushrooms, vegetables—are dropped into the broth for a few minutes and cooked. You drag the fiery ingredient out of the pot, into your rice bowl and, ultimately, into your poor, unsuspecting mouth. I’d been scheming to try Hot Pot since I first read of it in the books and waited until ChengDu, one of the acknowledged Hot Pot destinations, to try it. As we entered the restaurant, the locals stared and smirked more than usual, eager to watch us get red-faced and uncomfortable. A group of young Germans were just leaving and recommended we try the so-called “blander” broth.

I was having none of that. I'd rather put on a skirt than show weakness where spicy food is concerned. Plus, I knew there’d be plenty of TsingTao to extinguish any fires. In the spirit of a culinary Hemingway, I ordered the spiciest broth. Heather felt powerless to argue. She suspected, I believe, that we were getting in over our head. But she knew also that I’d been moony-eyed over this whole Hot Pot concept since Beijing, and there was no point in trying to talk me down.

The pot was set down, red and angry as a tantrum and quickly began to boil. (You can see it in the center of the picture.) I tentatively dropped in some mushrooms and lotus root. Our waitress hovered, in case we needed some kind of emergency resuscitation. I fished out a mushroom and took a bite. WOW. My lips were seared and started to go numb. But not numb enough. I turned red and began to sweat. I felt dizzy.

It never got to the point of CPR, but about two bites in Heather put down her chopsticks and cried Uncle. I toiled through everything we ordered, but only barely.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Wanna Buy A Blender?

We encountered this store dedicated to all things Blender near our hotel in the Tibetan Quarter of ChengDu, China.

Jiuzhaigou, Sichuan Province.

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After much debate, we eschewed the famous Yangzi river cruise in favor of a few days hiking in Jiuzhaigou Nature Reserve, a pristine forest valley and home to nine Baima Tibetan villages. While I had had my heart set on the Yangzi cruise, we learned that the scenery had been marred by pollution as well as rising waters due to the construction of the Three Gorges Dam (to be completed in 2009). To my surprise, none of our books listed the cruise as a recommended highlight of China: “The steep, shadowy peaks that once menaced the narrow river dwindle in height, their grandeur and mystery swallowed by the rising river.”

By contrast, all the guidebooks (even our low-key Lonely Planet) raved about Jiuzhaigou and we decided that a few days without cigarette smoke, spitting and crowded tourist sites, would be a welcome change. Flying into Jiuzhaigou, I was overwhelmed with excitement to see the snow capped mountain peaks rising above the clouds next to our airplane – a taste of the land of Mt. Everest. We landed in a snowy mountain plateau and then took a taxi down the mountain to the Nature Reserve.

Our book describes the area: “Set against a backdrop of thundering waterfalls, snow-capped peaks, and forests, 108 iridescent turquoise lakes fan out across mountain valleys like a peacock unfurling its plumage.” Legend holds that the warrior-god Dage presented a magic mirror, crafted from clouds and winds, to his beloved Tibetan goddess Wunosemo. One day, a meddling devil, envious of the couple’s love and happiness, made Wunosemo drop her treasured mirror. The mirror fell to earth where it shattered and formed the 118 glittering lakes of Jiuzhaigou.

We spent two full days hiking through this spectacular region and visiting the Tibetan villages nestled in the park along the way. For me, this will always be a treasured part of our journey through China. -Heather

(Yes, Heather did take these pictures. Thanks to software guru, multi-continental industrialist and future cult figure Mark Suster for turning me on to Bubbleshare, which enabled the fancy scrolling thing with the pictures. -Alex)