Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Namaste!


After a quick two-hour flight from Budapest, my backpack and I wandered around the Athens airport for a few hours before my next four-hour flight to Doha on Qatar Airlines. It’s advertised as a five-star airline, and it wasn’t bad at all. I settled in the barely-enough-legroom seat with my headphones, moist towlette, piece of complimentary candy, in-flight magazine, in-flight duty-free shopping guide and in-flight entertainment guide. I was ready! I said goodbye sadly to the Athens airport, which has drinking fountains (!) and wonderful new politically correct signs directing people of “reduced mobility” to special places. Gotta love it.
So I arrived at Doha airport around 11:30 at night to begin a seven-hour layover. Not looking forward to that. Anyway, I checked in at the Qatar Airlines Transit Desk to find out my gate number for the early-morning flight.. The young woman there gave it to me, then asked me if I had had dinner yet. I told her No, and she gave me a voucher for a free dinner at one of the fast food outlets nearby. Not too shabby, Qatar Air. Had a nice meal of samosa, vegetarian rolls, fries and a drink. Only six and a half hours to go. I cruised the large duty-free area, thought about buying a $200 raffle ticket with a Lamborghini as a prize, realized I’ve never won anything, so resisted the temptation, wandered around a little more, and finally found a marginally-comfortable chair and settled in for the long wait until my flight was called. Think I got around two hours sleep.
Checked in for my flight around 5:30 AM, bleary-eyed and stumbling. Found my seat on the Qatar Airlines plane and immediately nodded off again. Another speedy four-hour flight and I was in Kathmandu. Damn. Another adventure about to begin. And everything went so smoothly at passport control and baggage claim. I had already completed my visa application form, just had to do another one at the airport (!), pay my $40 visa fee and go find my suitcase. It was checked all the way through from Budapest, so I was hoping it had survived the trip. And it had! In fact, as I walked up to the baggage carousel, it was the first bag off. Wow! How often does that happen? Makes me think my departure in mid-December will be really horrible. We shall see.
My friend Sandra, with whom I would be staying, had sent her driver to pick me up. As I exited the airport, 10,000 people were crammed into the arrivals area looking for their friends, family, loved ones, etc. How would I ever find Macha Raja? Turns out Sandra had shown him my photo on Facebook, me and the tiger, and he was waiting for me in the front of the crowd. Another quick, easy process and we were off to the wilds of Kathmandu in his little purple Subaru Zen.
Sandra lives about 200 meters off the Ring Road, northeast of the city, and we drove through some of the worst traffic I’d seen since my trip to India in 2007. No lane markers, no traffic lights, no pollution laws and apparently no understanding of the rules of the road. Banged-up cars and motorcycles and buses everywhere, spewing out tons of pollution into the beautiful Kathmandu valley. And since it is a valley, and there’s not much air movement, the bad air just hangs there, casting a noticeable pall over everything. Many of the Nepalese wear face masks to cut down on their inhalation of all the terrible fluorocarbons and even worse dust floating around. But, hey, the temperature was around 78 degrees (F), the sun was shining gaily through the smog and the road was alive with the vibrancy of the local people. All 1.5 million of them crammed into poor little Kathmandu.

Anyway, it was only a short drive distance-wise, and we drove through the gate to find Sandra’s three-story luxury house (at least by Nepal standards). Bright yellow on the outside, trimmed with wood, inside it was even better. USAID does alright by their employees. Lots of wood and carved doorframes and Tibetan rugs and barred windows. There’s even a pool table in a large common room on the second floor. And the view from the rooftop terrace has to be seen to be believed. Sandra’s cleaning lady was there, but her cook was off for the time being. Tough life, hah? Cleaning lady, cook and driver. My kids’ tax dollars at work.
Sandra was still at work, as it was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, so I unpacked and tried to catch a few winks before she got home She finally arrived around 7 PM with a couple of her colleagues in tow. Brianna had offered to fix Thai food, which was a nice treat, and Ferenc (from Budapest, naturally! Darn Hungarians – just can’t get away from them) was along to help greet the new arrival. I scarfed down too many Samuel Adams’ ales and pigged out on salad and Thai noodles with chicken. Yummy. I finally got to my bed around midnight, and slept the sleep of the weary traveler.
But the next morning, I was up with the sun and ready to check out Kathmandu. I rode in with Sandra to work at the US Embassy, and Macha dropped me off in the Thamel area, a place filled with tourist shops, trekking stores, cheap prices, local restaurants and happy natives. It was just like most bazaars you’ve seen in your travels, everyone hustling and trying for a buck – or, in this case, rupee.
I was armed with my trusty map I’d printed off the Internet, so I was ready to try finding my way down Kathmandu’s back streets from Thamel Chowk (which means “intersection”) to Kathmandu’s major attraction, Durbar Square. Not a long trek, but lots of winding narrow streets. Of course, to add a touch of spice to the adventure, Kathmandu’s streets do not have names or any signs posted whatsoever to identify the streets. Hmmm, should be fun. So off I set toward Durbar Square, Naturally with my unerring sense of direction, I immediately got on the wrong street, took a couple of inappropriate turns at other busy chowks and eventually found myself emerging at a main street, which I incorrectly identified as the New Road on my map.
It wasn’t New Road, of course, as I found out while wandering forlornly up and down it. I finally chanced upon a big sign that did identify New Road, and realized where I had made my error. Stupid tourist. I corrected and took off toward Durbar Square. Finally found it, paid my entrance fee and acquired a local guide, Misha, to escort me through the ins and outs of this temple-filled area. He was great and really knew his history and buildings, and I had a fun time wandering with him. If you’re interested, you can check out the buildings on an Internet site, so I won’t bore you with them here.
Anyway, after my tour I managed to connect with my Internations friend Rabin. He took me to lunch at a nearby Nepalese restaurant, Alina's Café, where we had a wonderful tray full of food: mutton, sauces, potatoes, spices, a large plate of rice with which you’re supposed to mix the other stuff, and some yoghurt. Good solid home cooking. Along with a bottled soft drink, it ran me a little over $4 US. I was off to a good start on my Nepal adventure.
We arranged to meet the next day to finalize the schedule and payment for my trip to Chitwan National Park the following week, and I walked back the main road to Thamel, managing not get lost this time. I did a little more browsing in various shops, looking for one of those great striped cotton shirts worn in this part of the world. I found several I liked, but the sizes! Suffice it to say the Nepalese extra-large shirts aren’t the same as my extra-large bod these days. Bummer. Finally managed to find one that mostly fit (I won’t tell you the marked size), so I was somewhat mollified. I also had a cold drink at one of a chain of small restaurants called the Bakery Café, which employs deaf waiters. Ooops, sorry, hearing impaired. I’d forgotten I had read about this place in the guidebook, and I blithely told the waiter what I wanted. He motioned to his ear and shook his head, and I remembered about the deaf waiters, so I sort of redeemed myself by pointing at things on the menu. The American Tourist abroad. Macha picked me up around 3 PM, and we headed home for my nap. I was still a little jet-lagged and tired, so needed to refortify myself periodically.
Macha and I picked up Sandra at work around 7 PM and we headed a short distance away to Kotetsu, a nice little Japanese restaurant, where everyone sits around a long open grill and the cooks fix everything right in front of you. No knife-twirling this time, but the food was great. I had the spicy tuna sushi and grilled calamari. Mmmmm. The party that night was in honor of some of Sandra’s embassy friends whose parents had come to visit from Florida and who were leaving shortly. Around nine US Embassy employees and family members. A nice group. I also accompanied the meal with white wine and then some sake, so I was feeling pretty good by the end..
Managed to make it to bed around midnight again, and sleep was welcome. It had been a good first two days in Kathmandu.
Wednesday, November 18, Macha took me to meet with Rabin in the southern part of the city. Rabin didn’t have his credit-card imprinter, so we had to meet later that day to finalize my trip payment. Macha then dropped me off at Patan’s Durbar Square, another great area of temples and palace architecture, south of Kathmandu city. I acquired another guide – or, to be more precise, he acquired me – and off we went to explore the local sights and sounds of this really beautiful little Square. Raz was another good guide, and after an hour’s tour and explanation of everything, I found a nearby rooftop restaurant for lunch. I climbed five flights of stairs to get to it, and was breathing heavily when I arrived on the terrace, but the view was worth it. And the food was good again. This time I chose mo-mo, a Nepalese appetizer, which is really just dim sum. I had the chicken-filled and buffalo-filled ones. Just what the hungry traveler needs. And only 390 rupees, or about $5.00.
We found Rabin later that afternoon and settled my payment for my upcoming Chitwan trip, then headed home for some rest and so I could bring my journal up to date. And now it is.
Wednesday night Sandra took me to a club she hadn’t been to before, called Tamas, to hear a band she had had play at her house for a party. Good band, better munchies. We had Nepalese tapas, which included: chicken lollipops (like chicken legs with sauce), chicken satay on a skewer, mutton balls, fries, and something called sukruti, which turned out to be a nicely spicy mutton mixture. Really spicy – Sandra couldn’t eat it, and her eyes were still tearing 30 minutes later. Of course, being an old New Mexican chile scarfer, I had no problems at all, and downed the sukruti like it was going out of style. Went perfect with beer, equally as good, in a totally different way, as the grenkiy I had in St. Petersburg, Russia, especially with Everest beer, a local brand. The beer came in a 650 ml bottle and cost about $3.50, or 700 forints in Budapest. What a deal.
The next day, Thursday, November 19, I had a full day planned of wandering and sightseeing. I rode in to work with Sandra and asked Macha to drop me off at the Royal Palace, the first stop on my day’s visits. I thought I’d work my way from there through Thamel and down to Durbar Square, seeing selected sights along the way, with lunch at the Rum Doodle restaurant. So, I hit the Royal Palace at 8:30 AM sharp; naturally, it didn’t open until 11. Okaaay, plan revision. Got some breakfast at the Bakery Café, the one with the deaf waiters (which is probably why the music is so bad), and was satisfied for the nonce. Scrambled eggs, sausage, toast and tea, very nice. Then hit the streets for some souvenir shopping, intending to go back to the Palace around 11. Well, this time I looked more carefully at all the goodies on sale, and started buying and just couldn’t stop. Picked up all my gifts and souvenirs, and even had to buy a bag to carry them in. The Shopper returns. Rabin called and wanted to meet for lunch at noon at the Rum Doodle, so that also curtailed my Palace visit. I did get to the Garden of Dreams, however, which was a nice side trip into a pretty, quiet little garden area off the main drag.
Lunch was fun at The Rum Doodle, one of the favorite stops for mountaineering folk. I even left my footprint on the wall on the terrace level; check it out next time you’re there. Rabin gave me all the documents for my trip to Chitwan next week, and after lunch I shopped some more and finally called it a day around 3, when Macha picked me up. I’ll live to visit the Royal Palace another day. That night was a restful one at the house, with pizza and a movie. HBO – wow!
November 20. After visiting the Post Office to buy some stamps for my many post cards (and getting a major runaround as to where to purchase them), I walked over to New Road and found the tailor Sandra recommended. All I could order were a couple of pair of nice slacks, but that was enough. Custom-tailored slacks – alright. Then I walked down the street to Durbar Square and onto Freak Street, the primary gathering place for hippies in the 1960s. Still a few of then left, from the look of it. Anyway, it was nearly lunchtime, so thought I’d try the Kumari restaurant, recommended in my guidebook. Well, it was wonderful. A little tiny place on Freak Street, I ordered a garlic steak and a bottle of Everest beer. The steak came on a sizzling platter, with fries and veggies and, with the beer, was just about as perfect a lunch as I’ve had in awhile.
After lunch I wandered Durbar Square for awhile, taking in those sights I’d seen when I first arrived in a touch more detail. After a lazy late afternoon, Sandra took me to the local newly-opened Irish Pub, which was, well, nice. Good food, though – more momos. Ferenc joined us and we discussed EU politics for way too long. After a short stop at The Factory for just one last drink, Sandra and I ended up in a late-night pool session at her place, until my eyes began to close of their own volition and I hit the sack with a vengeance.
November 21. Saturday, I was up at the crack of nine, way too early. Macha picked me up and I asked him to stop for breakfast at a place called, appropriately enough, Mike’s Breakfast. Another wonderful meal. Two poached eggs, two hamburger-sized sausage patties, fried potatoes, interesting brown Nepalese bread and butter and tea – boy, I needed that.
Refreshed once more, we headed over to the Buddhist Temple and stupa of Swayambunath, on the northwest side of Kathmandu. I did manage to climb all 300 steep stairs to the temple, stopping often along the way to admire the view and catch my breath. But the climb was worth it, with amazing views over all of Kathmandu and an astonishing stupa (like a basilica) at the top of the hill. This landmark is also called the Monkey Temple for all the wild monkeys running all over and around it. Hundreds of monkeys looking for food, cigarettes, whatever, from the tourists.
I strolled around the area for awhile – always remembering to go clockwise around a Buddhist stupa – and decided to feed the poor starving monkeys. I bought some nuts for them, and started my rounds to feed them. They were gone! Not a monkey in sight. Really. Every friggin’ monkey had disappeared from the temple area. I couldn’t find even one. Well, hell, screw you, then, monkeys. I took my monkey nuts (so to speak) and started back down the staircase from hell. Fortunately (for them, anyway), there were monkeys along the way down, and I managed to unload the entire bag of nuts on them. Even had a couple of them eating out of my hand. Cool.
By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, my thighs were actually quivering, so I sat down to rest and wait for Macha to find me. My afternoon was restful again. That night Sandra was invitrd to dinner at some newly-arrived friends’ home, so she asked me to come along, which I did. The dinner party was for eight people, including the hosts, and the food was wonderful, especially considering the couple’s household goods had only arrived two days previously. The wine flowed and conversation was spirited, but I was still adjusting to the time difference and the food difference, so I called it a night around 11 or so.
Sunday, November 22 – up early again to meet another Internations contact at the Rum Doodle for lunch. Arabinda Subedi. Nice giuy, nice lunch, we chatted away the time until I had to leave. After lunch, we were supposed to tour some neew art galleries, but Sandra got sidetracked or waylaid or something, and Macha finally picked me up 1 ½ hours later. I got to go to the American Club, where Sandra was sitting with a few friends for afternoon drinks. We headed home shortly, then it was off to the wedding of some Hindu friends of Sandra’s, which was a ball. Held on the top floor of a large hall in the Patan district, way south of Kathmandu, it was crowded with revelers, some of whom were Sandra’s work colleagues. The women mostly wore beautiful saris, and the men were in suits, except, of course, for me, but no one seemed to care. The food was great and the DJ was lively, and I danced away the evening.
Monday morning, November 23, Macha drove me to the airport around 10 AM for my noon flight to Chitwan with Tara Air. It was the beginning of my four-day package with Unique Wild Adventures in the Chitwan National Park. And for more about what happened next, you’ll have to wait for the next Newsletter installment.

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