31 January 2008

150.5 million

Last night, I went to a big party in Beverly Hills. Beverly Hills is a great place to have a party, by the way.

Just kidding. I copied that from the blog of "Bill" Marriot (Marriot hotels CEO). But I believe him.

Quite a few of my readers still seem to be concerned about my health. I don't blame you. I have a wry way of describing the daily calamities of travel, but there is really no need to worry. Sarcasm is sometimes the only defense mechanism I have against getting lost, annoying touts, and my repeated bouts of diarrhea (another one just started!).

I am STILL in Kathmandu. This week, however, I managed to visit the other two cities in the Kathmandu valley: Patan and Bhaktapur. Both of them are quite charming. If you ever visit Nepal, I recommend staying in Patan instead of KTM. They're adjacent to one another, so it doesn't make much difference accomodation-wise, except you can avoid the absolute HELL of Thamel, where most people stay. Patan is famous for its even more fabulously ornate, temple-loaded Durbar Square, the admission fee to which I cleverly avoided by not paying it. It actually rained while I was there! I was pretty shocked only because I planned to avoid rain on this year-long trip, and I've done a pretty good job so far (only 2-3 showers in nearly 6 months). Patan also has an excellent museum--one of the few I've recently found worthwhile--describing the iconography of Nepal's mishmash of religions. Bhaktapur, a bit farther away, is also famous for being historic and templeful and additionally famous for producing a rich yogurt called "royal curd" that tastes--and this is the highest compliment--Greek. Bhaktapur feels like a big town in the country, and I found it, like Patan, quite laid-back and sedate compared to uproariously insane Kathmandu. They even bar vehicles from much of the historic center, and I don't understand why Kathmandu doesn't do this. Admission for foreigners is pretty high for Nepal ($10!), but it seemed worth the day trip to me. Changu Narayan, a UNESCO World Heritage Vishnu temple, is also nearby, and I visited. The carved, wooden struts that hold up the temple roof still retain the color of their original paints, making the complex beautifully vivid. The bus drivers were on strike for the afternoon, so I had to take a taxi, but the driver was really nice and only asked me for 30% more than the regular rate.

Today, I managed to collect my passport at the Bangladesh embassy. In keeping with the unrelenting snags in my plans over the last week, the official mistakenly marked my visa "entry/exit by air", which makes a difference in Bangladesh, and I had to sit around until he was available to write "/land" next to it. I guess I could have done that, too. Really, I breathed a sigh of relief given how much worse it could have been ("Oh, sorry! We can change it, but you have to wait 3 days and pay another $100. No problem!"). On the way back, I passed the American embassy again. Opposite, a bank actually had a counter for processing US visa applications. Also opposite, a group of protestors had set up a little shack. Since I live for this sort of thing, I asked the man in charge what the US did this time. He told me he represents Nepali people who've applied for US immigrant visas at a cost of $755 each (considerable given that entire families typically apply together and the average annual salary of a Nepali, according to him, is just $200), but whose applications were rejected. They weren't angry because of the rejection itself, I gather, but because the rejections were somehow unreasonable, and the enormous application fee wasn't refunded. I don't exactly understand, but he said he himself was a "winner" in our annual Diversity Visa lottery, submitted the necessary materials, but was then told that he shouldn't have submitted the application because he didn't meet certain qualifications (like work experience, something hard for people in developing countries to quantify and prove). But they kept his money, which he had to essentially liquidate his assets to raise. Anyway, they've got some kind of rotating hunger strike system going, and I intend to find out more about this situation, which is happening to many people in many countries, he said. I told him I'd write a letter to my representatives. Once I figure out what's going on, I'll post it here and encourage y'all to copy and send it, too. Maybe Barack Obama will be sympathetic. Hillary will certainly say she is.

And that figure I used as the title of this post? IT'S THE POPULATION OF BANGLADESH!!!

29 January 2008

Martyrs Day

I really want to leave Kathmandu. I am sick of the pollution; I am sick of the touts; I am sick of the power outages (6 hours a day). But I am thwarted again and again in my attempts to escape. On Monday, I had planned to visit the Bangladesh embassy to get myself a visa. When I called up and learned that Americans have to pay $100, I balked and delayed. Finally deciding that it's not so much money when hotels and meals will probably cost me less than $5/day, I decided to go ahead with it today. So I submitted my materials (had to hunt around for a place to photocopy my passport because of a power cut), and the lady at the desk told me to come back in two days. Two days?! Yes, because tomorrow is a holiday--Martyrs (Martyrs'?) Day. Gasp. Sigh. Oh well. All I have to say is that Bangladesh better blow my f*cking socks off for the trouble and expense it's costing me to visit it. I am very optimistic, though. I hear the people are exceedingly friendly (and you can trust them), nobody hassles you, and there are virtually no tourists.

On the way back from the Bangladesh embassy, I passed the (new?) American embassy. As usual, it is the most absurdly enormous, extravagant, and vulgar building in the neighborhood, possibly the city. I think it's the only building I've seen in this country with an attached parking lot, too, which may be appropriate. I asked to go in to use the toilet, but they told me to come back during regular hours for citizen services. Typical.

While sitting at a cafe today, I mused about what it means to be a traveler, as I often, self-indulgently, do. One has lots of time to think on the road. And what I thought was that travelers are rather shady people. I wasn't able to supply an address in Bangladesh where I'll be staying, an entry date, or the length of time I plan to be there--and the receptionist found this surprising and suspicious. "I'm backpacker scum," I helpfully explained, "I don't have an itinerary." So she told me the name of a hotel in Dhaka to fill in. But you see? You're supposed to have a plan, a purpose in life, or people won't easily trust you. Without direction--perhaps this is what people think--you are too likely to fall prey to whimsy, distraction, and sin. While traveling, a usual question is what do you do--presumably, what do you do when you're not traveling, when you're back in your real native realm. As someone who's spent four of the last nine years either traveling or living abroad, I find this question uncomfortable. I usually say I'm a student, which seems decent enough and nicely causes most people to lose interest ("student" means "poor" and "unimportant"). I hate it when they actually ask what kind of student I am. Telling people you're studying for a Ph.D. in English literature can be a real conversation killer, I assure you. And when I tell people I'm just traveling at the moment--I don't have anything else going on: no job, no spouse, etc.--their eyes narrow, they shift, they say "Oh." Some people understand, of course, and it is always agreeable to find the society of fellow vagabonds and drifters. They're all around you, my friends, but you won't notice them until you enter their world (unless you go to Bangkok). I also realized today (not for the first time, I admit) that by traveling so much in my 20s--a thought more on my mind as I approach my 30th birthday in only a few months--and spending the remainder of my time as a grad student, I've sort of dreamed them away. Even "teaching English" in Japan was one, long daydream, given how little I had to do and how much of an outsider I was. Which brings me to my point: regular people have regulated lives, and the traveler does not. You can safely assume that most people have a routine, a fairly boring routine, that involves some combination of work and family responsibilities. Events out of the ordinary are exceptional. An unusual day is cause for alarm or interest. For the traveler, however, every day is unusual; every day is interesting. So you never really know what the traveler--particularly the long term traveler--is up to. He/she can never tell you everything. There is too much. And that doesn't even take into account what the traveler is *thinking*. Without the usual routine and responsibilities to dwell on, the traveler has the leisure to meditate continually on any number of things, things often beyond the pale of respectability. We all self-censor in the course of everyday life; how else can one bear the strain of its banality? Torn away from our usual context, however, our rebellious nature froths to the surface. And the longer we're away, the more we fail to live up to those embedded norms of behavior, the more even the best of us become, to varying extents, trouble-makers.

I have a question: if most speakers of English now or soon will live outside the original English-speaking nations, does that mean, e.g., American English is or eventually will be a minority dialect?

Heath Ledger is dead?!

I can't believe it! I kinda liked him. First they take River Phoenix... and now this! Who's next? Paul Bettany? Elijah Wood? Leo (oh God no)??

27 January 2008

Effective Immediately

As of January 1, 2008, the visa fee for non-immigrant visas to the United States will increase from $100 to $131. Don't worry, your Uncle Adolf and Aunt Mercedes from Europe can still visit for free--this only applies to nationals of those countries who require a visa, like Lesotho, Paraguay, and Chad. Why this might be of concern is the likely retribution many countries will seek by raising their own fees accordingly. It already costs US citizens (and US only) $100 to visit Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, China, Bangladesh, Syria, Azerbaijan, and I don't know where else. Personally, I'm not planning any trips to Azerbaijan, but the other two of the last three *are* on my itinerary (and I just barely missed Bolivia's fee, which was recently implemented). I just found this out today, so I may even skip Bangladesh--does anyone know if it's worth $100? I guess daily expenses will be low enough to compensate. But I could also dump more time into India--no loss there. And I also found out that Sri Lanka is free (unlike Myanmar) and still relatively safe in the touristy sections. So, decisions decisions as usual on the road, and always, sadly, pathetically, money-related. Paul Theroux sometimes pokes fun at penny-pinching backpackers like myself, but when all you have are pennies, you have to pinch them hard, indeed (and, unlike him, I haven't already published a dozen books). The Japanese government did help my cause by finally refunding the tax I paid there last year (yay for the yen, by the way!), but I am steadily heading toward Europe, where cash will drain away faster than a yodel echoes.

All that is filler, because I have nothing interesting to report from the tourist hell of Thamel, Kathmandu. The day after arriving, I decided to treat myself, for the first time, to one of those half-day spa packages the ladies and metros are always raving about. For about $60 (including tax and tip), I got a full body massage, facial, manicure/pedicure (I had the option of either this or a BBQ lunch!?), haircut, and access to the jacuzzi (not working, of course), sauna, pool, gym, etc. Very nice, and all this at the palatial Le Meridien resort. Out front is a large pipal tree beneath which Keanu Reeves achieved enlightenment in the movie "Little Buddha". Next time, I want to try the full-body "wrap".

I also had my head completely shaved and my beard and mustache trimmed.

23 January 2008

"Here come the elephants."

Royal Chitwan National Park may no longer be royal, but it's still the number three attraction in Nepal after the Kathmandu Valley and trekking in the Himalayas. And so here I am. On day one, I visited the nearby elephant breeding center, where I got to feed peanuts to some cute but surly babies. Who doesn't want to feed peanuts to elephants? Personally--and I am not being sarcastic--I live to enact stereotypes. The baby elephants haven't learned elephant etiquette yet, however. When I held out some peanuts in my hand, one of them just grabbed the whole bag with his trunk, tore them away from me (that trunk is pretty strong!), and stuffed the whole thing in his mouth. A group of Chinese tourists came, too, but the old women of the group were too frightened to feed them directly. They kept shrieking ("Aieee!!") whenever an elephant's wandering trunk thrust toward them in supplication.

On day two, I rose early to board an elephant bound for the park itself. The same group of Chinese tourists--and me--rode a pack of six elephants (we sat on little platforms) into the park to look for even more wildlife. The Chinese were making so much noise yelling, chatting, and constantly taking photos of each other, I felt my choler rising. I was worried we'd scare away the rhinos. I guess we didn't, though, because we eventually did find a mama rhino and her baby. I didn't like that the elephant drivers essentially herded them into a clearing and surrounded them on all sides so the tourists could take photos, though. That must have been traumatic for them. But I also didn't like it that the drivers beat the elephants' heads with sticks and poked them with sharp, iron barbs when they didn't obey. I should have known such mistreatment would occur--I generally avoid such animal rides--so I doubt I will do this again. After it was over, I gave the elephant 100 rupees and a bunch of bananas as a tip. I got dropped off right at my hotel door, after all! The money he passed up to the driver. The bananas--the entire bunch, skins and all--he shoved into his enormous mouth. Then he took an equally enormous crap on the hotel path and left. Scary.

After the elephant ride, I had scheduled a jeep excursion deeper into the park. I was hoping to see tigers, naturally the big ticket item. I saw rhinos, monkeys, deer, and various birds on the elephant walk, but I was promised even better game further in. This did not materialize, however. Perhaps it's because the day was cool and overcast, but the animals were not much in evidence. I did see one beautiful tiger, kept in a pen, and some ghaurials and crocodiles. But other than a bunch of peacocks--one of which opened its tail feathers for us--and a brief sighting of some cute bears, I think the jeep was tearing through the park too fast for us to really have a chance to see anything else. Naturally, the guide said it's better in February and March. It's always better at some other time, in some other place. But why is this offered as consolation? I'm sure it was better 400 years ago in the Turkish seraglio if you were the sultan, too, but counterfactuals have nothing to do with the here and now.

One bookseller refused to sell me Bertrand Russell's "History of Western Philosophy" for $10 instead of $15. I told him that nobody is ever going to buy it (in Sauraha, Nepal?), but he said lots of people buy philosophy here, pointing out some apparently popular pamphlets written by subcontinental sages I'd never heard of. I assured him he didn't know what he was talking about, but no dice. Another wouldn't trade me Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities" for Paul Theroux's "The Old Patagonian Express." He wanted another $3.50 on top. Even though I explained that none of these paperbacks would be worth five cents in my country, he said he just couldn't do it. He must be a fan of Wolfe's cutting satirical style. In resignation, I bought the first book in Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series. I haven't read sci-fi/fantasy in years, or anything remotely light in awhile, and someone recommended it to me back in college (I have a huge backlog, but I remember everything!). So I'll give it a whirl. If I don't like it, I'll trade it in turn for Rudyard Kipling's "Kim" or just go back to torturing myself with "Leviathan", which, to be honest, is quite funny. I did also see a copy of "The Man Without Qualities" floating around, but only the first volume... perhaps I'm not ready for that yet. I haven't even cracked open "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia", which I've long been eager to finish and trade in India for "The Anatomy of Melancholy" by Robert "Democritus Jr." Burton--just like "The Wheel of Time," a number one bestseller in its day (1621).

And now I must go. They'll be washing the elephants down by the river in a few minutes, and I'm certainly not going to miss *that*. Too bad it's too cold for me to throw on a bathing suit and join in. Ah, the regrets of one's life...

21 January 2008

In the footsteps of the Buddha (well, almost)

Yesterday, I revisited the Lumbini Development Zone, an enormous swamp slowly being transformed into a park of some kind by the Japanese. The LDZ is a kind of Buddhist theme park, with a representative temple and monastery complex from just about every Buddhist or partly Buddhist country--even Cambodia (and... France?!). Last night, the ubiquitous mosquitoes kept me awake with that threatening buzzing sound they make RIGHT IN YOUR EAR. I had to get up at one point to slaughter a bunch of them.

Today, I attempted to visit the site of ancient Kapilavastu, where the Buddha lived in opulence until he was 29, when he left to find enlightenment (hmm, strange correspondence). I never did discover why I couldn't get there (it's only 25 km away), but the soldiers at the intersection said the words "violence", "political", and "villagers" (more importantly, "no bus"), so I guess I'm going to be missing out. Instead, I visited the Lumbini museum (where the toilet doesn't flush--see my last comment, Mel) and another Japanese-built World Peace Pagoda. Oh well, there are plenty of sacred sites of Buddhism for me to visit in India.

Speaking of sacred sites of Buddhism, it seems Sri Lanka has decided to resume its civil war, so I may skip it. Maybe Myanmar instead?

PS - I have diarrhea again. I think I'm going to set some kind of record!

19 January 2008

From Himal to Mahabarat to Terai

With all the scheduled power outages in Nepal, it can be hard to find time to use the Internet, so forgive me if this post is longish to make up for lost time.

I couldn't wait to get out of Pokhara. It's an amenable enough place, especially after weeks in the mountains, but it's also an extremely fake place--the tourist quadrant anyway--what with all the fat, white families; Korean trekking parties; (overly)fashionable Japanese (over)dressed like hippies; Westerners dressed like Nepalis (they often look like clowns); Nepalis dressed like Westerners (they always look like casually-attired teenagers); and everyone wandering dazedly back and forth along the lake between kayaking or paragliding outings. The last straw was when Guitar Dude appeared at my hotel. Are you familiar with Guitar Dude? He's the relaxed, sensitive guy who, for some reason, brought a guitar with him on his trip to Nepal/Thailand/Peru and, for some other reason, feels compelled to sit on his (usually *my*) hotel porch and strum tunelessly for hours. If he had talent and could play folk songs, that might be alright, but Guitar Dude seems principally interested in making a spectacle of his coolness, which invariably attracts the attention of the overexcited backpacker chicks--they flock to Guitar Dude. Maybe I'm just cynical, but I really do want to know *who* carries a guitar halfway around the world with themselves. If he were an entertainer--trust me--he'd be staying at a better hotel.

Anyway, I quickly booked a seat on a "tourist" bus heading past Tansen. The travel agent's wife was about to perform "puja" (prayer) when I showed up, so she kindly dabbed a tikka onto my forehead, blessing me for the day. I thought it must be a good omen when the wife of the bus ticket seller blesses you in a country in which you are 30% more likely than usual to die in a bus crash.

Tansen was formerly the capital of an independent kingdom but was annexed once-upon-a-time by the powers from Kathmandu. Today, it is a quaint, medieval sort of town with mostly Newari inhabitants. I don't yet understand the difference between the subcontinental divisions of caste, tribe, and ethnicity, but I gather that the Newari caste, like many others, is endogamous enough that it basically constitutes a race. But I don't know. I think they have their own language, too, and they certainly have unique culinary delights (broiled duck with ginger and bone bits, flattened rice grains eaten with potato curry, stuffed lungs). After trying a few of these at the best (really the only) restaurant in town, I subsequently had a veggie burger and then a pizza. Tansen musn't see too many tourists, because the locals constantly asked me the most increasingly personal questions: country, name, profession, marital status, which hotel I'm staying at, etc. I forgave this, though, because Tansen (unlike Lakeside Pokhara) also had plenty of Nepali eateries serving up those delicious, milk-based sweets also common in India. Every morning for breakfast, I had a samosa slathered in curry with masala tea and several of the more artery-hardening desserts. After downing a few antacid pills, I was ready for the day.

The two noteworthy things I did while in Tansen were visiting Ridi Bazaar and hiking to Ranaghat. Ridi I went to because the tourist office told me a festival was on. Pilgrims would be flocking to the town, at the confluence of two rivers and three provinces, to bathe in the sacred waters of the Kali Ghandaki. For this reason, Ridi Bazaar is called the Varanasi of Nepal. When I got there, it was a bit more carnivalesque than that. There were stages, games, vendors galore, and even a hyperactive Ferris wheel. A mendicant holy man told me he was cold, so I gave him my superfluous pair of long underpants. Accepting these, he then asked for money. Few bathers were present--was it wrong of me to visit just to watch people jump in a river?--but I was assured they'd come out in the evening. Not wanting to risk taking the 2 hour return bus trip at night (these rides would tighten even Guitar Dude's sphincter), I skipped it. On the way back, I had to switch from the bus to a jeep. In the back of the jeep, the driver crammed about twelve people and three goats. More people wanted to get on, though, so the goats were relegated to the roof, from where I had to listen to their plaintive squawks for the next hour, the poor things. There isn't much to say about Ranighat. It's an Edwardian palace built where two rivers merge. The tourist office considers it a mandatory stop for all visitors to Tansen--and the all day hike out to it does, indeed, pass through some pretty areas. From a distance, the palace is also quite lovely. Up close, however, you can see how unromantically dilapidated it is. Every inch of accessible wall space is covered in graffiti, including a nice "Fuck you!" right out front. It is often called the Taj Mahal of Nepal. That evening was pizza night, and the pizza was excellent! I sat inside in traditional Newari style--on floor cushions with no shoes. Luckily, it wasn't until the end of my meal that the mouse ran across the soles of my feet. I chose that moment to leave.

This morning, I finally left the Mahabarat hills for the Gangetic lowlands known as the Terai. After changing buses only twice, I arrived in Lumbini, the UNESCO World Heritage (and therefore real) birthplace of Siddharta Gautama--the Buddha! With the afternoon already on the wane, I only had time to peek in at the birth site itself--a stone slab with a sign next to it reading, "This is the exact spot of Buddha's birth." I am credulous enough to believe this. Why not? I saw a gold star stamped onto the ground in Bethlehem where Jesus was born. If it wasn't really there, I'm sure it was somewhere in the vicinity. And if these people never really existed, precision is irrelevant. Fiction always rang truer to me than fact, anyway. Later this year, I hope to visit Troy. I won't fault the archaeologists if they've failed to uncover the exact site of the Trojan War. I *do* fault the caretakers of Lumbini, though: there's trash everywhere, and I can't describe the toilets without using the speech of the damned.

Quick note to friends from Mito: Namche Bazaar is the name of the major village of the Mt. Everest region of Nepal, hence the name of our favorite overpriced outdoor goods store. In case you were wondering.

15 January 2008

Naughty Russians

I have just been informed that in 30 minutes, the Internet service in Pokhara will be shut down from the main server in Kathmandu, so I have to type fast.

After my last update, I headed to the next hot spring town on the agenda: Jhimu. The hike from Ghorepani was actually as difficult as advertised, so I took two rest days sitting in the lovely hot waters, set in three natural pools by the river. My next endeavor was to visit the Annapurna Base Camp (A.B.C.), a 4000 meter outpost at the cold, snowy end of a steep valley, and come back. One woman who hiked it in seven days (four there, three back) said this schedule was typical, but if I had to, I could probably go up in three days and come back in two. On the second rest day, I asked a guide--just out of curiosity, mind you--how long it would take to hike up to Macchupucchere Base Camp, an hour out of the A.B.C. He said it was impossible to do it in one day, that it would take more than 14 hours. Well, he didn't realize that I'm an American, and I don't know the meaning of the word "impossible"! So up I went (9.5 hours) and back I came (7.5 hours) in two days (with diarrhea!), and I'll never be able to tell him about it. While at the A.B.C., I enjoyed 360 degrees of outrageously stupendous views. The Himalayan mountains were so close, I was positive I could just touch the peaks from where I stood, a mere 2000 meters below. I felt this made up some for skipping the world's largest pass.

After another day relaxing in the hot spring, I returned to Pokhara (ah, semi-hot instead of only quasi-hot showers again!), where I have already prepared to escape again to parts south. I have finally traded in my China travel guide for India (Indian friends--I will be contacting you soon!), and I sold back my sleeping bag. Naturally, the guy who first sold it to me and promised to buy it back for 50-70% of what I paid only offered me 33%. He actually pulled down stuffing out of a small hole (can't you do that to anything stuffed with down, new or used?) to prove it was damaged, though I'd only used it four or five times. Rather than pull the stuffing out of him, which I'd have enjoyed, I suppressed my anger, pleasantly declined his offer, and ultimately sold it elsewhere for more.

At M.B.C., I met a lovely brother and sister team from a small village outside of Oxford (called Little Worth, ha ha). Uncannily enough, the brother's name is Steve. he studies Sociology, and he happened to have a book about Jacques Lacan by Slavoj Zizek, which he kindly permitted me to peruse. Even more uncannily, his last name is "Kurd" (mine is Polish for "cheese"), and his middle is James (mine's Joseph: is that uncanny?). Well, the Sociology and Lacan bits will only make sense if you know me really well. Anyway, we've met for drinks and chatting a few times in Pokhara, and the two of them (who live together!) invited me to crash in Oxford if I come round. This evening, I made up for days and days (can't really say weeks) of bland trail food with a blowout Indian dinner that cost me almost, but not quite, $10. This included a 2-for-1 cocktail offer, which I naturally took advantage of. Just as naturally, the drink I ordered two of from the list of ridiculously-named options was the "Naughty Russian." They weren't very good, but at least they got me half drunk.

It looks like I'm out of time, so I suppose I'll just half-drunkenly amble off to bed. I must wake up at 5 am to catch the bus to Tansen, the little town halfway between here and Lumbini (Buddha's birthplace), my next major destination.

Good night, my friends.

14 January 2008

Done trekking after only 12 days.. whaaaat??!

Back in Pokhara. Full post tomorrow when I am done being tired. Trekking was great. Shorter than I expected, but I am just too damn fast. Yawn.

07 January 2008

Annapurna Episode I: The Gastric Menace

Here's what happened: about two minutes after I published the last post, I suddenly felt sick to my stomach and ran back to my room. What did I do, ye travel gods?? I didn't vomit, but plus two days for recovery nevertheless. So I ended up "enjoying" New Year's Eve in Pokhara (=hordes of drunken men from India roaming streets strangely absent of white people) after all. And, with all the time wasted on stomach upsets and whatnot, I decided to amend my plan and, like a coward, *not* cross Thorung La, the world's highest mountain pass (5400 meters). Instead, I took a cheap(ish) flight to Jomsom, the first major town after the pass. From there, I walked up to another town called Kagbeni, which sits at the entrance to the fabled Mustang Kingdom, where I assume they drive excellent cars. The Mustang Kingdom is a small Tibetan enclave buried deep in Nepal. The landscape there is parched and dusty like Tibet itself, and it's still ruled by a raj, even. The capital, Lo Manthang, is a walled, medieval city. Boy, do I want to go, but one cannot advance farther than the STOP! sign at Kagbeni without first purchasing a special permit. Cost: $700! That's not a typo! That's seven hundred, seven zero zero dollars. And it's only good for ten days, after which you have to pay $70/day for an extension. So I didn't go there... but I did manage to sell my Tibetan coat (from the prostration business) to a local family for half of what I paid for it. I explained to the woman how special it is to me, and she said she'd probably fling it around her ailing mother when she visits from Kathmandu. And then I walked back.

I had expected the conditions on this trek to be a bit rougher, but so far it's been TOO EASY. The "trail" is actually a dirt road that jeeps travel on, and at least every hour you pass through a Nepali town chock full of hotels (with hot showers), restaurants, shops (selling Bounty bars, which I love), and even bookstores and (as you can see) Internet access. I had expected I'd have to eat dhal bhat every day (basically rice and beans, the staple dish of every poor country), but in many cases, the dhal bhat is more expensive than, e.g., pizza or enchiladas. I recommend avoiding the pizza, by the way, but the enchiladas are delish. Tonight, I will be having apple pie and custard served with hot chocolate and rum (yum). Despite all this luxury, my daily expenses have hovered around $8. Recently, I stayed at a town called Tatopani, which literally means "hot water" and I sat in the hot water springs for two days. Why not, when your "expensive" hotel room costs $1.30? Tonight, my room is about 15 cents, I think, but I report this only for your amusement and amazement, readers, not because all I care about is how cheap everything is. Those Bounty bars are like a buck each, after all: quite a splurge.

Yesterday, my goal was to trek from Tatopani to Ghorapani (horse water!). The trail is clearly marked on my map, heavily used, and quite easy to find and obvious on the ground. Naturally, I got lost. When I realized I took a wrong turn, I asked a restauranteur if I could take a "shortcut" over a mountain rather than backtrack. Sure, he said, only an hour and a half to Ghara, a town midway between Tatopani and Ghorapani. Splendid! Four hours later, I did indeed arrive, exhausted and spent, in Ghara (got lost a few more times, too, once in a forest where I was certain I would die--that one was for you, Zach). So it took me an extra day to reach Ghorapani, but I was rewarded just now with a lovely view of the Annapurna Himal at sunset from the top of Poon Hill, 3180 meters. Spectacular! I sat for about three hours before the main event just watching the clouds gradually tear themselves away from the sacred, snowy peaks, drift off, and evaporate. How could I not end such an evening with apple pie and berummed hot chocolate? And off I go to do just that. Things are cheap here in the mountains, but not as cheap as in the plains. To wit: Internet access is around $5/hour! Egads!

Coming soon, Episode II: Attack of the Scones