Destination Nepal: One Year Past

One year ago I stumbled out of my plane after 30 hours of sleepless travel to the airport in Kathmandu. I remember how I had to take a tram from the plane to departure area, and how it looked more like a military base than an airport. As I filled out my VISA the immigration officials gave me completely contradictory information, and when I couldn’t find my pen in my haze one of them tried to get me to pay him for his. One official told me I could only stay 90 days… the other assured me that I could stay as long as I wanted. I was confused.

As I exited the airport, there was Amy waiting for her mail delivered by some stranger from Michigan.  I was disoriented and confused as a dozen taxi drivers converged on me and I could barely communicate with the poor girl. I hastily said goodbye to her and looked for my driver. As I found my name plate, some random guy tried to take my luggage from me who I thought was with the driver so I let him. He wasn’t and immediately asked me for a $20 tip afterwards. As I sat in the car waiting for the other passenger to arrive, I could smell the strong stench of diesel. It was slowly raining but I had to get the window open for a chance at fresh air.

Finally my co-passenger arrived and took off down the bumpy roads of Kathmandu. A few flash images still stick in my mind: cows walking and sleeping roadside, a man sleeping under a tree in the middle of the road, shady-looking, drunk Nepalis walking the streets of Thamel, my co-passenger David asking me: “So you’ve never been in the third world before.” We arrived at our guesthouse but I could not sleep that night. I was too jet-lagged and anxious from all the crazy things I had seen the night before.

It has been one hell of a year of adventures. I pray there are many more still awaiting me in the coming  years.

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The final hours

“If it’s still on your mind, it’s worth the risk.” – Johann Von Goethe

Tomorrow I hop on board a plane headed towards Chicago via Japan, therefore making today my last full day in Asia. I can’t be disappointed with my bold and memorial journey to explore some of he most exotic and interesting places on the earth. What began as an idea to travel and see India, evolved into a living experience in Nepal with a full-blown Asia tour attached.

Well, I never made even made it to India. Life happened and Nepal took me by surprise. Unforeseen circumstances forced me to trim down my ambitions and settle for a more realistic trip. I chose Thailand as one country to explore before heading onto home.

In Nepal I saw and experienced a lot of crazy, strange, bewildering things that I accepted as normal and unremarkable after adapting to them for so long. Upon entering Thailand, the culture shock was real again. Born again were the feelings of being lost, confused, and unable to comprehend a culture that was utterly foreign to me.

Anyhow, back to the point of this post. There is a Midwestern ideal that staying home is the best. That despite where you go, nothing will be better than the warm comforts of your home. I’m sure some people will tell me that this was my “experience of lifetime.” Yes, it was and I will always remember it fondly.

While I understand what they are saying, they are utterly wrong. But people are missing the point. Maybe this is because I’ve changed so much, or maybe I just unlocked a part of me that always was.  The experience has awoken a desire in me, to explore and never stop being curious about the world. I have met so many people where travel is a lifestyle, where adventure is necessary to survival, and who leave their homes regularly with ease. I don’t want to fall into line with a secure life. I want their flexibility and freedom.  And now I know it’s not as hard to have as I once thought.  It just takes a lot of guts.

So I counter your experience of a lifetime statement by saying “This is just one of my lifetime of experiences.” Sorry, I didn’t get this “out of my system”. Hell, I’m addicted as ever and I see no real cure in sight. Give me the culture shock any day. I’m ready to be lost and confused again.

I’m going home because I need to rehab a injury, to save some money, and realign my career goals. After that, anything is possible. I will love my time back in Michigan to see my family, friends and enjoy the luxurious lake shore. Just don’t expect me to settle anytime soon.

Back to Writing.

I promised to write about my experiences here and I broke that promise about 5 months ago when I ceased writing. Sometimes life kicks your ass a bit. The last 5 months have certainly been a wild ride, and I haven’t wanted to talk about all my experiences publicly. Sometimes you don’t want to admit what you’ve been going through. Sometimes you can’t because you don’t want to hurt the people around you or lose your job. These are probably reasonable excuses. However, now that I will be leaving this place behind, I hope I can go back and recall some of my experiences before they are too dim and unrecognizable for me to imagine anymore. I hope that if I talk in some of my friends in detail, they won’t mind how I characterize them. I hope that if I criticize my former place of employment, my future employers will see it as trying to do good and improve the way organizations work, not simply mindless bashing because I have a bad taste in my mouth. If you can’t write truthfully and honestly, what is the point of writing at all? I don’t want be a PR spokesperson of my own reality.

I have less than a week remaining before I depart Nepal. I feel as though I have the whole world in front of me, looking to smack me in the face with its new surprises. I’m not leaving on my own terms. I wanted to stay, I wanted another year of adventures in Asia. My health and my wallet have made that impossible. So instead I’ll be settling for 12 days in Thailand before I head back to Michigan. My number one goal is to get better. One I am healthy again, anything is possible. My number two goal is to find employment again and get my career back on track. In between, I have to make sure I record the lessons I have learned here, for my own benefit and the benefit of others. And finally, I don’t want to give up my dream of living abroad, yet again… whether that takes months or years to happen. I don’t know where I will go next, but idea of settling down is nowhere near my short-term plans.

So keep in touch with my blog as I reimagine the events and experiences that have taken hold of me here.

Adventures in Driving, part 2

There’s not a single fucking street sign the Kathmandu valley.

This makes trying to find anything on bike a real ordeal. Today, it took me about 30 minutes to find this temple called the Naag Bahal, the site of where a documentary was being played about the topic of garbage. So tonight I sat, huddled outside on cold pavement in the 40 degree Nepal air watching trash. It was actually much more interesting documentary than it sounds. It was about people in the Cairo slums who processed their cities trash for a living.

To find this place, I had to ask about 8 separate bystanders where the hell it was, riding through alleyways sometimes spanning sometimes not more than several meters wide. As I asked these people how to get at my final destination, they each pointed in the direction I needed to go, telling me which way to turn. Unfortunately it’s hard when there are a million alleyways that look the same. Unlike being on foot, you feel like you have to continue driving and it’s harder to stop and adjust your path. At one point, I had to drive through an entire Nepali wedding procession full of dancers, which I promise was no simple task. Upon finding a temple seemingly in the middle of the city, I asked the final Nepali where I was. “Naag Bahal” he replied. My reaction was one of excitement and relief. I had finally arrived.

Lucky for you, I have two stories for this post. On the previous day, my friend was nearly 30 minutes late for our dinner because of her crazy taxi driver. In an attempt to save 5 minutes of time, he attempted to drive down the narrowest of alleys. Unfortunately for him, the taxi was much too large to pass through this given road. The poor driver did everything; he folded his mirrors in and risked scrapping his car against the edges of the alley just to avoid turning back. To his dismay, the taxi would not fit. What was supposed to be a 15 minute tax ride ended up taking 45 minutes of time.

These are just some of the many crazy experiences of driving in Kathmandu.

Adventures in Driving, part 1

I could have died today. As I was driving down the infamous ring road of Kathmandu, the traffic was light so I cruised at a higher speed than normal. The only time it’s possible to drive that fast is in the mornings. In the afternoons the streets are choked with traffic jams, and in the evenings the darkness and lack of street lights makes speed a liability. When you’re on ring road, you’re likely to encounter a whole host of unpredictable stimuli, such as industrial trucks, buses, taxis, bicycles, dogs, cows, old men, joggers, motorbikes with a 15 foot pole tied to them for some reason, massive potholes, piles of rubble, dead horses etc.  Anything can jump out in front of you at any moment. Yet 6:30am, there just isn’t much on the roads yet.

Anyways, I was doing one my of my effortless passes around a large vehicle that  I commonly perform,  when right in front of me a huge bus jumped in front of me.  The bus saw me and screeched to a halt, which provoked screaming from several female passengers inside. I hit the brakes immediately and swerved around to my left, running parallel to the bus.  I quickly drove around the backside of the bus and passed it from the rear. I glanced backwards to see if anything substantial had happened. I saw a lone man on foot running around the side probably looking for my bloody corpse. However, the bus looked stable and there were no other collisions. I sped off immediately, thankful there were no consequences and not wanting to stick around for any traffic disputes.

What the hell just happened? Should I have stayed around? Did I do something wrong? Today was just another example of how dangerous the streets of Kathmandu are. If I had been day dreaming for just a second, it could have been a deadly crash. Neither of us saw each other at all; the bus was turning its way into traffic, and I was trying to cruise around the vehicle that was pausing for it. If something had happened, it would have been me suffering the consequences. I would have been a crumpled pile of flesh splattered on the side of that massive bus, while the passengers may have suffered whiplash at worst. A good lesson was learned today and I have some gratitude for not suffering a far worse fate. When venturing on Kathmandu’s notorious roads, it’s best not to chance fate even more by driving faster than you should. I’m thankful I didn’t have to learn this lesson the hard way.

My Average Day in Nepal

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I thought it would be interesting to give everyone a survey of what an average is like for me in Nepal. I’m talking about your run-of-the-mill weekday here, not some weekend adventure visiting sites or doing adventure sports or something. I’m interested to see people’s reactions of what expectations it met, and ones that it did not.

My day roughly begins at 5:30am. At this time, I awake to the sounds of soft singing, almost a kind of humming outside my door. It’s the grandparents of my host family and they are performing their rituals to the Hindu shrine located outside my door. As I slowly drift off to sleep, I am suddenly woken ajar by a bell, a crucial part of the ritual. At that point, I’m done trying to fall back asleep and it’s around 6am. This is when I need to wake up anyway for work, so it’s not a huge loss anyway. I stumble sleepily to the large house where my host family resides. My room is located separate from the house, which I generally prefer except when it comes to the bathroom. I wash up my face and pack up my things for work.

Whether you’re worshiping or just starting your day, waking up at 5am is a pretty common affair in Nepal. People’s day simply run on a different timetable, almost like they are still linked to a rural lifestyle. Early to bed, early to rise as they say. At 10pm the streets are virtually empty, which is eerie considering there are no street lights in Nepal. This is true even on a week night, though some places in the tourist area of Thamel rage on to the morning hours like any good party. Regardless, the average Nepali is keen on getting his or her day starting early.

At about 6:30am, I hop on my scooter and head towards town. As I drive through the bucolic, verdant countryside, families and friends are out for the morning walks. Some have starting to toil on their farms. School children and buses are on their way to begin learning for the day. I weave in and out, avoiding other motorcyclists, pedestrians, potholes, mounds of rocks, buses, motorbikes, stray dogs, and other random objects that I pass. Even in the countryside, driving takes a lot of concentration and patient. When I get a clear straight-away, I rev my engine up so I can feel the cool air flow across the whole body. It’s exhilarating and free. Driving a car won’t ever feel the same again after this….

I make it to the main road, where I avoid traffic police by finding alternative driving paths to avoid getting waved over. The risk of this isn’t very high, but without a real driving permit I feel especially vulnerable. Typically, foreigners caught without a permit pay a fee of about 1000 rupees, which is close to $11 or $12. All my friends assure me that tourists are almost never pulled over. I would prefer just to avoid the scenario all together. After a brief stint on the main road, I hop on another back road, where I have to weave around narrow streets with walls. I make sure to honk at every turn; you never know what asshole cruising around the corner won’t mind laying you out with his motorbike. Again, I’d rather not take any chances.

At work, I ease into my desk and begin my day. The house servant offers me coffee, which I always accept. It’s not like coffee I’m accustomed to in the US – it’s very weak and sugary. I’ve come to enjoy it though, and I always accept. I begin my work by making phone calls to potential volunteers in the US. It’s relatively easy work, they present me their questions and concerns, and I try to answer them as best as I can. After an hour of this, I take my scooty back to the volunteer hostel and eat my breakfast. There I get to chat with volunteers from our program from all over the world; typically American, Canada, Europe and Australia, but occasionally other countries as well. This part of the day I really enjoy. After breakfast, I head back to the office, sometimes many calls or sometimes other projects.

At 12pm is lunchtime, and I head back to the office again. I eat a meal of Dal Bhat, the traditional Nepalese cuisine. Dal Bhat is basically a combination of rice and lentils, with other vegetables spliced in that vary from day to day. Rarely chicken is added. Though the ingredients change, the core recipe never strays too far. I eat this for lunch every single weekday. It’s very high in carbs, though the lentils give it some protein. Many of the Nepali’s are rail thin, but still have little fatty bellies. These we call the Dal Bhat bellies… made straight from carbs!

I leave work around 3:30pm, and choose between a few activities. Sometimes I meet up with volunteers and hang out in the afternoon .Yesterday I went to the Nepali gym, which I just become a member of this week. It’s been a good experience, one that helps me feel more balanced again. I’m quite a spectacle there. Imagine all the uncomfortable staring and sizing up that goes on in a normal gym and multiple that by 5x. People are friendly, but they are all very curious in me. I find it mildly entertaining.

When I’m ready, I take my scooter back to the host family in Syuchutar. The afternoon traffic is far busier and you have to be extremely careful driving. Today I went back to my host family because I needed to do laundry. Almost all laundry is done by hand in Nepal. Surprisingly, it actually is faster to wash laundry by hand that using a machine. However, unlike a machine, you actually have to all the work yourself. Sometimes I find it very meditative. Today, it was just downright an inconvenience after a long day.

There’s not that much to do at the host family, but the upside is the clean air and peacefulness of the place, for the most part. The children are really the only chaos that goes on, with the screaming and playing disrupting the otherwise calmness of the land. They are pretty cute though, so it doesn’t bother me at all. When the power is on, I can use my computer to write or watch a selection of movies I’ve collected. I can also read as much as I’d like. I started trying to help one of the house servants English, and learning Nepali in return, so we’ll see if that becomes a regular activity. Otherwise, you can meditate, sit and look at the great view, or watch Bollywood TV in the living room. Of course I can’t understand it at all.

Dinner is served at my host family around 7pm. It is another healthy dose of Dal Bhat, though it is prepared a bit differently than at the hostel. That at least keeps me from getting too sick of it. I also buy my own snacks during the day, making sure life doesn’t get too mundane. The grand parents are served first, and then the rest of the family. After dinner, I am so exhausted and it’s only 8pm. I try to keep myself up just for the sake I don’t wake up at 4am the next day. Some nights I make it to 9:30, but some I start drifting at 8:30. Hell, I deserve it after a long day!

And that’s a typical weekday for me in Nepal. By Friday, I’m ready to go out, have a beer, and have a meal that in no way resembles Dal Bhat! The weekends are really what you live for in Nepal. Hopefully I can stay awake past 10pm….