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.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Keep on Rafting


Back from Chitwan, it was time to rest up for whatever came next. Thursday afternoon after my return was just that, taking it easy, relaxing at home, watching a movie or two, catching up on my Blog, etc. A nice restful night. Friday, November 27, I headed for town once again with a long list of things to do. First was to check on the status of the custom slacks I’d ordered the previous week. When I tried them on, naturally they were too long and had to be fixed, so will go back next week to see how they’re progressing. I had my recent photographs of Kathmandu and Chitwan, taken with my old but serviceable Pentax real camera, using real film, developed and printed, and they came out great.
Then, it was lunch at Kumari again, and I looked forward to another one of those wonderful steaks. I settled into my seat, the same one I’d had last time, ordered my beer and steak, and sat back to wait for lunch. The waiter came back about 10 minutes later (not sure why he waited so long) and informed me there were no steaks that day. No steaks? This restaurant is famous for its steaks, it’s touted in Lonely Planet, ex-hippies and trekkers from coast to coast shout the praises of Kumari’s steaks. And they were out of steaks?
OK, I’d have a cheeseburger instead.
My taste buds prepared to wind down a couple of notches, but was I ever surprised when my burger came and it was one of the best I’ve ever had anywhere. It could have been the model for Jimmy Buffet’s Cheeseburger in Paradise. Out-friggin’-standing! I happily scarfed and snaffled and pigged out on burger and beer, and was a happy camper. After lunch I wandered around Kathmandu’s Old Town again, and again got a touch turned around and ended up out on the main street of Kantipath. Damn, how long will it take me to learn that muddle of streets and chowks? Well, I’ll keep trying.
Macha and I went grocery shopping at one of the big new markets, picking up food for me for the next week or so. In and out in 15 minutes, then had to wait another 20 minutes while the traffic snarl in the parking lot and street somehow got untangled. Then it was another early night with pizza and movies.
Saturday saw me up and out of the house by 10 o’clock. I mailed my postcards at the post office and then walked back to the Royal Palace along Durbar Marg, which was preparing for a local music festival at the north end of the street. This street is Kathmandu’s upscale shopping area, which I could tell as a new KFC and Pizza Hut recently opened here. Fast-food Imperialism.
I bought my ticket immediately for the Palace tour (they took the “Royal” out after the last turnover of the government early in this century), and took the self-guided tour. It was…..interesting. A lot of the furniture was still in pretty good shape, but much of it was starting to show signs of wear and tear and revolutions. A touch threadbare at the seams. A patina of dark on the brass. A lack of maintenance on the lawns. Of course, the Palace isn’t in use anymore, so that’s understandable, but still, for tourists and locals alike, one would think a former Royal Palace would be kept in a condition which would bring credit on its country.
A nice pizza lunch at Fire and Ice restaurant, and I checked in with yet another travel agent about my next trips. I still have some options, one of which is quite expensive, but will have to see how best to arrange the schedule. And on Sunday he rested.
More or less. Up late, a nice breakfast of steak and eggs at home, some light reading on the rooftop terrace, then a nice walk up to a nearby café for lunch, which consisted of hot and sour soup, mutton mo-mos, chocolate pudding and Sprite. A nice walk back and nap time before starting the day’s round of movies. See? I rested.
Monday was the beginning of another week. Finally got hold of Rabin, my travel agent, and we agreed to meet that afternoon. Until then, Macha drove me to see the Boudanath, possibly the largest Buddhist stupa in Nepal. And it was amazing. And BIG! I wandered around it for awhile (always in a clockwise direction), spun a few prayer wheels, jostled a few monks, and generally enjoyed the late morning sunshine. I finally found one of the rooftop restaurants and had a tasty meal of tofu chili and pita, which hit the spot. I set off in search of the Tranquility Spa I’d seen advertised on the Internet, but was unable to find it. Damn, and I was looking forward to a nice massage and lazy hour of relaxation. Ah, well, a piece of chocolate cake and some Sprite went down almost as well.
Macha picked me up around 3 and we visited Rabin at his office to finalize my next trip. All was okay, so again we went to his friend’s hotel to imprint my credit card. We were to meet Tuesday morning for him to give me all the vouchers I need. Then Wednesday it will be off to river rafting and a couple of nights in Pokhara. And we shall see what that brings.

SURVIVING THE “WATERY GRAVE”

My young driver for the next four days, Vishnu, picked me up around 9 AM on Wednesday and we were off to see the Wizard. We drove about two hours over interestingly-potholed Nepali highways, which were actually more like secondary mountain roads, full of ruts and holes that could easily swallow a car. In addition, monster trucks and buses cruised both directions, spewing out clouds of noxious black smoke that we drive through carelessly. There was no room to maneuver on the narrow mountain roads, although Vishnu, bless his little race driver’s heart, certainly tried. He nonchalantly passed on hills and curves which, if we’d been sideswiped, would have found us plunging off a Cliffside to end up a small ball of tangled metal and Gary in a ravine far, far below. I white-knuckled it all the way there.
Anyway, we made it to the put-in point and I joined our group of intrepid adventurers. There were only three other rafters that day: a young Spanish couple and Ali from Dubai. The Spaniards had rafted once, but it was Ali’s first time. I was the most experienced, having survived the Taos River and a two-day trip in northwestern New Mexico.
We were supplied with pullover waterproof wetshirts, life jackets, helmets and paddles, and we waddled down to the riverside. After a short safety lecture, and a review of the Raftmaster’s commands (plus a little practice with same), we were off. Much of the river was Class 1 and 2, but we progressed from rapids with names like Stepladder and Baby Washboard, to more difficult ones named Surprise, Upset and Monsoon, until we reached the Class 3-plus rapids named Bonecrusher and Watery Grave. But we survived them all. We didn’t lose anyone overboard, and each time we shot our rapids we did the rafter’s cheer: cross paddles in the middle of the raft, let out a loud cheer and slap the paddles down on the water. We were cool.
It was only a three-hour, 15-kilometer trip, but that was enough excitement for everyone. When we reached the take-out point, which was also our campsite for the night, I was surprised to find out I would be the only person camping there. Well, hell. Not much fun if you can’t sing campfire songs in Spanish and Arabic as well as English, so I decided to push on to Pokhara, my final destination on this trip. It was only about another three-hour drive, and I could sleep in a real bed instead of in a sleeping bag in a tent. No contest.
The city of Pokhara is actually quite big, and I was staying in the Lakeside area which, as you may surmise, is next to the lake. (Pokhara in Nepali means “lake”). My hotel was at the north end of the tourist strip of shops, restaurants, bars, etc. I checked in and found I was on the 4th floor – with no elevator. Oh, joy. I checked out the lake view, which was wonderful, and then hit the town. I passed all the trekking shops and souvenir shops and the surprisingly many bookstores and finally found the Everest Steakhouse, highly touted by Lonely Planet. I was ready for a steak. From the multitude of selections on offer, I chose the steak with rum sauce and a nice large bottle of Everest beer. I chomped and chewed and sipped and swallowed my wonderfully flavorful meat and beer. I was a happy non-camper.
Afterward, it still being early, I found the Blues Bar on a side street and stopped in to hear what they had to play. The small band was pretty good, with a sterling lead guitarist, and a singer who was generally okay, although there was one song in which he was so off-key the lead guitarist smacked him in the back of the head to get him to shut up. Another Everest beer finished off my night.
I headed back to the hotel, weary and ready for a good night’s sleep. I threw back the bed covers and threw myself down onto what I knew would be a soft, yielding wonderful tourist mattress, preparatory to flying off to the Land of Nod and into the blissful arms of Morpheus. BONK! Oh, No!! It was another Chitwan bed, a slab of steel covered by a thin pad. Not again! Damn, what do these hotels think their guests want after a day of rafting or trekking or rowing on the lake? I settled in as best I could and felt my bones crack against the unforgiving pad. No restful sleep for me.
Vishnu picked me up at the hotel the next morning at the crack of ten, after a mediocre hotel breakfast, and we drove off to see Devis Fall, which is really just a large worn-away crevasse near the town through which water flows in a series of falls. It’s named after a Ms. Devis, who was having a picnic lunch there some years back and was swept away by a sudden flood. That’ll spoil your egg salad sandwich.
Then we walked a short distance to another cave, from the bottom of which you could see up into where the Devis Fall river went underground. This next cave was hot and humid and wet and dank and dreary and had way too many steep steps. I must have sweated out a liter of water on the way down, and another on the way up. From what Vishnu told me, the next item on the itinerary, the Bat Cave, was even worse as far as closeness and dampness, so I decided I could pass on seeing the bats. Their loss.
I had the afternoon off, so, after a cool shower (no hot water in the hotel room, just some tepid liquid for a few minutes, then back to cool again) it was lunch at the Elegant View lakeside restaurant. A burger and fries topped off the morning nicely, and I repaired to the hotel for a nap on my slab of hardwood.
I liked the atmosphere and ambience of the Lakeside tourist district, so decided to wander the entire length of it during the late afternoon. One of the things that surprised me was the number of used bookstores along the strip. Apparently, when the trekkers have finished trekking for the day, they like to curl up on the mountainside with a good book. I browsed most of the bookstores, looking for new and used books I was unable to find in Budapest. And did I find a few? You betcha! I probably bought seven books during my stay in Pokhara, some of which I had been trying to find for years. A successful shopping trip.
I also decided to succumb to the many shoeshine guys hustling me along the promenade, so I whiled away about 20 minutes while my guy shined my hiking shoes to a high gloss. Well, actually, a low gloss, but it was a nice job and my poor mistreated shoes needed the lift. While I was sitting there in my holey socks, a wandering Tibetan woman named Pema stopped to try and sell me something, anything. She was fun and her English was very good, so I ended up buying a nice silver bracelet from her for a ridiculously low price (OK, it was probably a ridiculously low grade of silver). I now have my very own Tibetan-made silver bracelet with the characters for “Om Mane Padme Hum” engraved on it. Not many ex-pats living in Hungary can say that.
Dinner that night was Chinese. Since I was so close to China, I hoped I’d find some real Szechwan food that would give me a nice burn along with my jasmine tea. The food at the Chinese Tower was pretty good, with lots of little red chili peppers hiding in my Szechwan chicken. Again, I was happy.
Friday was my last full day in Pokhara and I planned to make the most of it. I caught a taxi from town to the World Peace Pagoda, since cars with Kathmandu plates aren’t allowed anywhere near this holy shrine. The driver took me up winding mountain roads, then took a sharp right onto a steep rocky path. I’m talking dirt and dust and pointed rocks and ruts and rock-filled potholes and more rocks thrown in for good measure. In fact, the entire two-mile rocky trail was only broken by intermittent piles of yak droppings. And just to make sure you knew you were in the mountains, there were no guardrails on this Rocky Horror Mountain Road.
We finally came out in a large parking area (dusty and rocky, of course). We got out of the taxi and the driver pointed to some steps and said, “World Peace Pagoda,” and strolled off to rest in the shade while I trudged my way to the top of the mountain, which turned out to be another 300 yards or so of rocky stairs and then no stairs up a steep and winding footpath. Crap! Took me at least 20 minutes to get to the top, where I found a large white dome with some Buddha statues at the four points of north, south, east and west.
The views, however, were incredible. The WPP looks out over Pokhara, lake and city, and to the east was the Annapurna Himalayan mountain range, none of which could be seen, of course, due to the heavy haze and clouds. But it was still cool being there. I had a soft drink at the small café on the way down, then descended again to the parking lot, wending my way carefully and warily down the rocky path and, incidentally, through a small herd of yaks working their way up the trail.
The taxi driver fought the same dusty, rocky trail back down the mountain, then dropped me off at the southern end of the Lakeside district, so I could walk back to the hotel and see any souvenir shops and bookstores I’d missed the previous day. I decided another visit to the Everest Steakhouse was in order, so I dropped in on them for lunch. This time, accompanying my Everest beer, I had a giant hamburger, served on toasted bread; the burger was easily larger than the bread surrounding it. Great food, and a real, true hamburger, thick and juicy and yummy. I’m salivating just thinking about it.
That evening around 4:30 Vishnu and I set off to nearby Sarangkot, one of the high spots in the area (in fact, where paragliders take off), to watch the sunset and see if we could spot a Himalayan peak this time. About halfway up the mountain road, a bus in front of us was also trying to make the steep road. The bus, like all Nepali buses, was crammed, packed, jammed full of people, so much so that they actually hung out of doors and windows. As if that weren’t enough, there must have been 30 or more people perched on top of the bus. Safety be damned, they were going home no matter what.
Well, maybe not. The bus started off from a stop on a steep incline and suddenly lurched to a stop, apparently having locked itself in gear. Clouds of black smoke issued from its exhaust, but the bus didn’t move. Stuck! Well, damn!
Some of the riders got out of the bus, and some climbed down from on top, and the driver was finally able to back the bus down to a place where it didn’t block the road. Vishnu squeezed past and we were on our way again. Unfortunately, when we reached the summit the sun had already gone behind the clouds and the Himalayan peaks were no longer to be seen; well, maybe just a few glimpses of some snow-capped ghosts in the far distance. Scheisse! Foiled again.
After that abortive attempt, the only thing to do was have a beer, which I did, at the Old Amsterdam bar, where I met Willum from Scotland. We passed a convivial hour or so, until one of the Nepali bartenders offered Willum a proscribed substance, which he proceeded to smoke and then to become pretty much incoherent, at least to me – not that his Scottish burr was all that understandable anyway. But I’m sure he made perfect sense to himself.
I let one of the bartenders lead me off down a dark side street to a tiny native hutch which apparently featured my new much-loved appetizer, sukuti, that spiced mutton I mentioned in an earlier Newsletter. They had it and it was okay, but not like what I got in Kathmandu. I finished it and escaped back to the light and my by-now favorite local haunt, the Everest Steakhouse, for my last dinner in Pokhara. Steak Flambe it was, set alight at the table. Almost warmed up my Everest beer, but it was delicious and a perfect top-off to my stay. A short session with the Blues Bar again, and it was off to the world’s most uncomfortable bed. We were scheduled to leave in the morning at 9 o’clock and I wanted to be sure I had absolutely no rest when we departed.

BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK

The morning started off badly and progressed to much worse. Yep, it was: The Day from Hell.
Reception called me around 7:15 in the morning to tell me there would be a Maoist demonstration at 9 AM which would pretty much close down the town and my driver suggested we get on the road at 8 instead. No problem. I rushed through my morning cold-water ablutions, wolfed down the tasteless hotel breakfast, and we were off on the road to Kathmandu.
We actually made good time, arriving in Kathmandu around 1 PM, thanks to the mountain driving skills of Fireball Vishnu, King of the Hill. All during the trip I didn’t dare close my eyes in fear I’d miss my death when it came. Also, I couldn’t talk to Vishnu for fear of breaking his concentration and having him plunge us over a Cliffside. Thankfully, there was very little traffic on the road, and Vishnu continued his weaving and darting until I became confident he wouldn’t hit anything or anyone. Well, fairly confident anyway.
I got back to Sandra’s house and Gate Guard Krisna was there to open the gate for me. I dragged myself to the house and opened the door, secure in the knowledge that Sante, the housekeeper, had turned off the alarm when she left that morning as she knew I’d be coming back that afternoon. I opened the door and immediately heard, “Beep, beep, beep…..” Ah, Crap. The alarm was still on. And, of course, I didn’t have (or need) the code. The siren went off, waking every Nepali for three miles around. The Embassy Security guards came racing over and we spent a nice hour or so making sure all was OK and waiting for Sante to arrive so she could disarm the alarm. Wonderful.
I finally got inside and first thing went to charge my borrowed phone, which had lost its charge while I was in Pokhara. Nothing. I plugged the charger into several outlets. Nothing. Blank screen of death. Damn phone wouldn’t even hold a charge. I was just too tired to care at that point. Screw it. I went upstairs, unpacked, took a quick shower – in real hot water this time – and decided to check my email before taking a nap.
All email seemed OK, but when I attempted to respond to one of the items, Yahoo requested I enter some almost illegible letters and numbers in a little box – ostensibly to ensure it was me, a real human, using the system and not a robot – apparently like the idiots who run Yahoo. I entered the figures, hit Continue, and the message came back that Yahoo had somehow, some way, discovered “suspicious activity” on my account and wouldn’t let me send my emails. WTF??!!
Yep, it was the final straw. I immediately whipped out a razor blade and slashed my wrists right there in front of the non-responsive computer, bleeding to death as I watched my message not being sent.
Okay, I didn’t really do that, but I sure wanted to. Either that or dive into the computer and strangle the Yahoo administrators until their tongues turned black and I had my revenge. Jackasses. Never a hint of problem or “suspicious activity” in the ten-plus years I’ve been using Yahoo, and they pick this time to hassle me?! Shit. Only one thing to do. I turned off the PC, went upstairs, got into bed (a nice soft one this time) and pulled the covers over my head until the world stopped going crazy. Enough.

So, another adventure successfully completed. Just ten more days left in this mountain and valley paradise, and only a few more local sights I need to see. You’ll have to wait for the next Newsletter to see what happens during my last days in Nepal. Goodnight, sweet prince.

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