Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Parade in Pokhara Nepal

After I blogged here yesterday I went over to a local cafe for an early supper. Despite it not being an official holiday here, street traffic and foot traffic had exploded, at least quintupling in 24 hours. Which, naturally, was why Pokhara's department of public works decided that the afternoon of Dec 25th was the perfect time to send out a road crew to Lakeside's main street.

Their goal, beyond wreaking traffic havok, was indiscernable. A crew of road workers dug new holes in the street by hand (you almost never see power tools are ever used here for manual labor) by banging the ground with the ends of metal poles. Then a follow-up crew came directly behind them filling in the new holes with gravel mixed with thin black tar-water by the shoveload on the spot (literally.) The finished road was neither worse nor better in any way than it had been to start with ... just a bit blacker in spots.

In the midst of this activity came the most astonishing sight -- first one, and then an entire fleet of small motorcycles bearing Nepali drivers and a passenger dressed as Santa Clause! Including red outfit and plastic face mask with white skin and beard. They neglected padding though, so all the Santas were Nepali-slender.

Next came a slowly jolting along parade of SUVs, buses, and flatbeds bearing various Christian dignitaries and locals, including a priest, dozens of singing school children, and what lookd to be a manger display only instead of the virgin Mary there was a pretty girl in a shiny blue satin dress who looked very much like Miss Nepal. Everyone was waving like the British Queen, with cupped palm.

The only problem was, there was no one conspicously Christian to wave to. No one besides me sitting alone, the first Western customer of the evening at the outdoor cafe. I raised my hand (in the American waving manner) and did my duty as best I could. Was very much surprised to find tears springing to my eyes.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas from Nepal: Shipping, shopping & money tips

Christian holidays are not celebrated in Nepal, except by hotels and restaurants who throw special meals and parties which both the tourists and middle-class Nepali love. (Nepalis are like Serbs, any excuse for a good time gathering.)

Pokhara has been gussying itself up (erecting sidewalk booths, stringing dozens of banners across the street, and painting all the curbs a spiffy black and white pattern) for the big Gregorian year end celebration -- a street festival Dec 27-30. It's not the Nepali year end, but again, any excuse for a party and perhaps making a little more money off the tourists.... My husband who grew up in a socialist/communist country is far more dismayed and saddened by the Nepali's habit of viewing all outsiders as little more than walking cash dispensers. I grew up capitalist so the commercialism doesn't bother me as much.

A national English language paper held a poll last month asking which calendar Nepal should use, Gregorian (Western) or a choice of two different Asian ones. Only 9% of more than 6,000 votes were for Gregorian.

I mailed off calendars showing both Nepali and Western dates to a few friends this week. The cost was inexpressibly huge because you can't use the local post office if you'd like your packages to actually arrive at the other end. The safer option, UPS, charges $54.00 per half kilo and you can only buy shipping in half kilo increments. So you end up sending bundles to one person, with a note begging them to break the package into bits and re-mail it to the others whose gifts rode along.

Due to my massive calendar extravagance, I ran out of cash on hand and so visited my first Nepali ATM. The display screen is comfortingly like home -- in English. (Cell phone displays are also all in English which means natives who have 99% of local mobile accounts must learn English to use their phones and text-messages, very inconvenient.) A friendly gun-toting security guard sits next to the booth more for companionship and window dressing than any real threat. The most delightful bit is when you get your receipt and see your bank balance in Nepal Rupees. At 63 rupees per dollar that means your lowly US bank account is swollen like the mighty Mississippi. I saved my receipt because who knows if I'll ever again get such a large number from an ATM in my life. Hundreds of thousands. Perhaps I should frame it....

Unfortunately the ATM dispenses in 1,000 Rupee notes. Flashing a 1,000 Rupee note about town is almost like using $100 bills in a US 7-11. It's rude and hardly anyone wants to break them. Plus there's the added confusion that the NRS500 and NRS 1000 banknote look extraordinarily alike. More alike than any other currency, most of which is different colors and sizes. On two occasions now I've handed over what I was pretty sure were NRS1000 notes and gotten back small change as though I'd given NRS500. I think once it was a mistake and once not.

Anyway, here are my top shopping and money tips for Nepal:

#1. ALWAYS ask for price before you say you'll buy something. Prices are almost never marked (except in restaurant menus). So say "How much is it? I'll buy it." Instead of "I'll buy it, how much is it?"

#2. Nepali native price and tourist price are two different things. Even for plane tickets and buses, etc. It's nothing to get upset about, we subsidize them a bit, that's all.

#3. The actual price merchants are willing to settle for for things like pashminas and oranges are all about the same. However the starting price they'll try right out of the gate can vary astonishingly. One orange vendor will try his luck with NRS150 per kilo of oranges, while another starts at NRS50. The actual "real" tourist price is NRS40 and I think natives pay something like half that.

#4. Everyone expects you to haggle. In fact if you don't they are palpably disappointed and also seem to feel they must rectify the situation because you are not paying a fair price. Ever since my husband paid one orange seller triple the going rate (he was in a hurry and didn't want to haggle), the man has tossed a free orange at him whenever we walk by. Another time when buying a pashmina for my Mother, I forgot to haggle. So the shopkeeper obligingly haggled with himself on my behalf. "It's 800 Rupees," he said, "OK, I'll take it," said I. "Well you are the first customer of the day do I'll give you 200 Rupees discount," said he. "Thank you," said I. "Well you are such a nice lady I give you another 100 Rupees off," said he.

#5. Restaurant bills are slightly shaky things. I ate the exact same meal three nights in a row at the same restaurant, and one time it was RS505, another time RS515 and a third RS535. After having watched Nepali waiters struggle over invoices for two months now, I've come to the conclusion that while they can learn a variety of foreign languages at the drop of a hat, the language of math will always remain an unknown and somewhat frightening land to them. So, check your bill if you're anal. I'm not and just pay whatever is there along with a 10% or so tip which is fine for here.

#6. Take more money than you think you will need for your trip. Although everything is very cheap (hotel $5-10 night, dinner for two $10-20, etc), somehow you wind up spending far more than you expected. I think because it's all so cheap, you relax and begin to not worry about spending money, it's only a little bit, a little bit, a little bit you think. But those little bits add up quite astonishingly.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I'm the Most Boring Person in Nepal

Yesterday, as I waited for my supper in a local cafe it was rather forcefully born in upon me that I am absolutely The Most Boring Person in Nepal. Everyone around me was running missions for the UN, or just back from hiking in Tibet, or just biked in from France via Pakistan, or teaches English in Cambodia, or has a rather funny little story to about trying to find a place to eat in Albania last month.

And then they turn to me. And I say, "Oh, I'm working." "Aid work? Diplomacy?" "Well, no. I'm writing a book." "A novel?!" "Well, no, it's a business book." The conversation goes blank for a moment. Then, they try again, "Where have you been trekking, been to Jomsom yet?" "Well, no, you see I have to write this book." "All the time?" "That would be my job. I'm not on vacation." Conversation over. Finito.

Everyone else here is on an ADVENTURE. I am doing the same thing I do at home. Except with a view of snow-capped peaks and banana trees. Which I'm quite enjoying actually.

It's just odd when I get notes from frineds and family back home, in whose eyes I am quite clearly an ADVENTURER. My self image gets whiplash.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Sounds of Another Fine Morning in Nepal

If I were the sort of glibly technical person who keeps digital recorders about the place because they might come in handy, I would have attached an audio file to this blog. In it you would hear the sounds I hear every morning waking up in Nepal.

No, that sound would not be a rooster crowing. Or rather it would be, but that would be unremarkable because in Nepal roosters do not crow for the dawn specifically. They crow for the midnight hour, the 1am, the 2am, the 3am etc. After a while you pay no more attention.

The sound instead would be a cross between a young lamb's bleat and the shrill cry of a hungry goat. Yet, it issues from a human. He is one of the many door-to-door vendors who come into Lakeside Pokhara each day to ply their wares. First around 6:30am come the covered-tray women, who will lift the cover whenever they pass a Western tourist on the sidewalk to reveal German-style baked breakfast buns.

Around 9am, the fruit and veg cart sellers who cater to local housewives appear, some with carts on big wooden wheels, others with oversized baskets balanced on bycicles. Then around noon you start to see the lunch food guys, usually with a glass-sided cooking box/display case with dahl, pokoras, and fried potato-filled dumplings. When it starts getting dark at 5:30pm, the corn-on-the-cob guys come out, each with a little smoky fire balanced on a platform they too wheel through town. The smoke does the selling so these are the quietest vendors. The cotton candy man follows hot on their heels. He can save his voice too because he ties a row of tiny metal bells to the strings from which the cotton candy dangles. As he walks along, the bells announce him.

I have not figured out what the Lamb-Goat-Call man at dawn is actually selling though. I've never been able to catch a glimpse of him. I hear his calls at 7:15 every morning, run to the window to see if I can catch him going by... but no good. He always sounds as though he's right next to the building, but is quite invisible.

My husband says he reminds him of the gypsies who used to roam the streets of Zadar Croatia where he was a child in the 1960s. They would stroll through town calling, "I fix umbrellas and sharpen knives!" over and over again. I find this recollection slightly improbable because Zadar has something like 300 sunny days a year with little call for umbrellas. But my husband swears by it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Cool Nepalis Eat Chinese

The first time I ate at one of Pokhara's three Chinese restaurants, a young, obviously hipper-than-hell Nepali couple plopped themselves at the very next table. It was a big surprise for me, I'd eaten at all the other types of places here and never seen hair nor hide of a local patron. I'd assumed they just didn't eat out.

Well if you are a Nepali with money, or are being courted by a local UN or other aid worker as a local contact, you do eat out. You love to eat out. However, it will always be at a Chinese restaurant - anything else would be completely uncool.

If you are a 20-something Nepali man, another way to demonstrate your coolness is to put your mobile phone on the table in front of you and use it as a kind of boom box throughout the meal. Don't worry if the restaurant already has a sound system with music playing on it. No one will mind if you jack up your mobile sound even more loudly so all can enjoy Nepali hip hop with you.

If you are a female Korean tourist, you may wish instead to show everyone how modern you are by smoking with enormous flair and drama throughout the entire meal. That's right, a bite of egg drop soup, a drag on the cig, another bite of soup, another drag on the cig, and so on.

If you are a waiter at a Chinese restaurant in Nepal, and you want to show your Western guests how well you understand their culture, the minute they enter, yank whatever is playing on the sound system and replace it with a George Michaels Holiday Favorites CD. When the CD is over (sadly it is only about 15 minutes long), push that replay button over and over again to continue their enjoyment. Abruptly cease when they leave the restaurant.

If you are a Serbian man, accompanying your wife to the Chinese place for the fourth time in a week because she cannot live without their rice noodle soup, sigh and order the potatoes. True, they do not look or taste like any potatoes you have ever had before, but for a Serb a winter stomach without a potato in it is an empty place indeed.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Sweet Smell of Dope

Like much of Serbia, Nepal had a healthy hemp industry in the past. (In fact last year the government tried to outlaw the plastic bags all merchants give you for your purchases in favor of hemp bags. The law passed, but without teeth so no one obeyed it.) This means even if marijuana is officially not legal, it's fairly easy to find the plants growing "wild".

I haven't smoked dope since it was de rigour in high school in the 1970s, and in all that time since never smelled a whiff of it while walking about US cities and towns. So the sweet smell of many Sombor streets on lazy Saturday afternoons in August and September were rather startling for me at first.

Cut to my current home office in Pokhara, a town where for many natives it seems every day is Saturday. There I am typing away diligently on my computer when, oh oh oh, there it is. A big cloud of 1970s floating in on the afternoon breeze.

If you like to eat your dinner at Pokhara's Bamboostan Tea Time Cafe, as I do, you may have noticed a metal placard nailed into the trunk of a huge tree directly across the way. "2005: Year of Drug Free Pokhara" it proclaims. I guess it depends on what you call drugs. Here the granny next door is puffing away at her weed pipe, but anything else would be out of the question. Happily, I've never seen a used needle anywhere here - unlike most European cities.

So the smell may be a little distracting from work sometimes, but you can't get uptight about these things. It's Pokhara. Relax, man!

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Christmas Shopping in Pokhara Nepal: Land of a Thousand Pashmina

I thought I was so clever. Things you can buy in Pokhara for the folks back home are plentiful, yet limited in scope. To wit:

#1. Faux "North Face" hiking gear which has an apparent life expectancy in actual field use of about 90 days.

#2. Cheap Indian cotton clothing (including the stripy pants so awful even Lonely Planet advises against buying them) coughed up like a hairball from styles of the late 1960s and early 70s. Notably I've never seen an actual Indian citizen or a Nepali wearing anything like them.

#3. CDs and DVDs -- illegally burned copies of whatever aid workers and trekkers left behind in various hotel rooms over the years. Fairly literate and upmarket, few blockbusters but many obscure independent films. A steal at RS200-400, but breaking copyright is after all stealing, so one would not want to encourage it.

#4. Tibetan "antiques" birthed fresh daily from various refugee camps nearby. Rather cheerful, if dark colored, but not simple to ship as presents unless one has a supply of boxes and tape, which I somehow neglected to pack for this trip.

#5. Pashminas, Pashminas, Pashminas.

I use this as an all encompassing term for everything sold here that's pashmina-shaped, as much is not actually truly 100% from pashmina hair. One shopkeeper demonstrated a test today: light a Bic (or match) carefully on the tip of a bit of fringe. If it catches fire easily, it's definitely fake. If it doesn't, you know there's some new wool content, although not what type or quality.

Anyhow, because every other store sells pashminas, most of which claim to be made locally, and they're remarkably easy to pop into UPS envelopes and mail off home (one is warned against placing too much trust in the Nepal postal service - if it works, prepare to be happily delighted, if it doesn't, well that's what you expected, so no harm done), so I decided pashminas for all and sundry would be it this year.

Easy yes, but not a perfect solution, because how do you judge what color and pattern a giftee would prefer and what she'd abhor?

So I got clever. I emailed a questionnaire to everyone. All they had to do was hit "reply", check boxes to indicate preferences (ie. stripes, paisley, solid, embroidered flowers) , and type their favorite color. At the last minute I added one final question "Colors I never wear are: [ enter here]" and it's a darn good thing I did too because that was the doozy.

Save for my sister Rachel (thou shalt be blessed among women), nearly every single other person typed something like "Pink, yellow, bright colors" into the colors-I-hate box.

I set out shopping with some concern, for in a land of 1,000 pashminas there are very, very few that are not bright colors. The fact that 70% of my loved ones had specified "Brown" as their color choice made things even harder.

When you enter a pashmina shop and ask to see "all the brown you've got please" they look at you as though you're a bit sad. (The fact that I happened to be clothed nearly from head to toe in brown myself - which I didn't realize until later - didn't help.) Here, even the poorest, elderly women hobbling along on canes wear a wealth of colors layered against the fall air - reds, pinks, golds, you name it. How empty and dour our Western world must be, I could see their eyes thinking.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

See I Told You Maoists Gave Receipts!

Freshly back from his Annapurna Base Camp trek, my husband brought me this as a gift.

Nature's Colonic

You know that character in 'The Devil Wears Prada' who says, "I'm just one stomach flu away from my ideal weight.'? Well, I hit my ideal weight yesterday.

My husband, on the other hand, who constantly eats street food, drinks water from the tap and wild streams, and in short does everything risky the guide books say you should never do when visiting Nepal, is hale, hearty, and bouncing with vigor.

I'd find the situation completely unfair and disheartening ... if I didn't look so good in my jeans.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

In Nepal Girls Work While Boys Play

This is a fairly unusual photograph of children playing outside in Nepal -- because two of them are girls.

When you first get here, the whole children-in-public thing is wonderful. It's a pleasure to be surrounded by playing, laughing children everywhere. Makes you realize quite vividly how few American children play outside in their neighborhoods anymore. (They are in back, or in classes, or camps, or watching a TV or PC screen.)

Then you start to notice something odd -- those playing-in-public children, they are ALL Boys. Maybe girls play inside, but I doubt that seeing as how typical Nepalese homes have such dark interiors that most of the family spends all their daylit time outside.

Of course there are girls around. You see them getting on and off the school bus with ribbons in their hair precisely matching the color of their uniforms. (The school may not have any unbroken windows or heat, but by god those ribbons match!) You also can see them responsibly sheparding younger children on their way to somewhere - which is no doubt how my husband happened upon these girls with their brother. And you can frequently see them helping their mothers with laundry and chores outside the house, especially hauling up jugs of water from the lake.

Nepalese girls, even fairly small ones, are too busy to play. They are working.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Nepal: Where Pointsettias Grow Like Lilacs

On an intellectual level, I knew common US houseplants like spider plants, and maidenhair ferns must actually live someplace in the wild. They had to come from somewhere originally, right? But, when you're walking down the street and the poinsettias are blooming away on branches several feet above your head, as opposed to potted clumps around your calves, the whole thing seems like a bit of a surreal, sub-tropical, drug trip.

Hello, my name must be Alice.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

American Hotels & Office Buildings: Steal This Idea From Nepal

I cannot tell you how often I stood at hotel windows in various major American cities, when I was in my old life of business travel, looking out at giant office buildings at say midnight all blazing with light. It wasn't because people were working, although yes Americans do work longer hours than most nationalities. It's because everyone left their lights on when they waltzed out of the building earlier that evening.

So on one hand we're hard workers all full of that Puritan ethic. On the other hand we're lazy-ass, energy-wasting carbon hogs.

If Al Gore gave out annual awards (which I really think he should, fabulous marketing) he should pin a medal onto the chest of the Nepali Hotel Association. That's because in Nepal your hotel key serves a dual purpose -- security and electricity switch. When you enter a room, there are no lights, no TV, no electricity at all until you plug your key in as shown above.

American hotels and businesses could save enough money in 90-120 days to pay back the retrofit - plus reap PR kudos for greening up.

This morning over breakfast I tucked into the Nov 5th issue of the New Yorker that I'd saved so I'd have something decent in English to read here. One of the articles sounded an alarm over rising private car ownership in places like India, Nepal and China. If Asians continue to act more like American consumers, apparently the world's in terrible trouble.

Well, maybe we Americans could counter by acting a little more like Asians, huh?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Here a Maoist, There a Maoist, Everywhere a Maoist

Note: If you're considering coming to Nepal, don't let the Maoist thing put you off. They are not remotely interested in hurting you. Nepalese of all political persuasions want to keep happy tourists' cash flowing in. Especially the Maoists who are now perched at key trekking routes requesting (cough, extorting) 100 rupees a day. (It's about US $1.50) They do give you a receipt though and are apparently very nice about not requiring you pay again in the same day if you produce it.

We hadn't to our knowledge seen any Maoists until a week and a half ago, we were trudging up a hill in the bustling business district of Pokhara (an area very few tourists go to) and the traffic seemed awfully jammed even for a Saturday. Got to the top and there it was: a Huge Maoist Parade. I'm talking thousands of people. All marching along 7-9 abreast, chanting slogans in unison, waving loads of red flags complete with hammer and sickle. It was extremely well organized (thus posing a striking difference to the chaos of regular Nepal street traffic.)

I was transfixed by the novelty. It felt like I was in a movie about 1950s Russia or something. After a while I asked my husband, "Honey, growing up in Yugoslavia, you must have seen parades like this before?" "Oh yeah," he said in a bored, this-is-incredibly-dull tone. Then his face lit up, "Look there's a hardware store!" With that he dove headlong into the parade, popped out the other side, and joyfully ran into a shop door.

A few days later when he was negotiating on rates with his to-be Trekking Guide, both men politely turned to me at the end to see if I had any input. "Well, $25 a day including meals and lodging sounds fine to me, but is it really all-inclusive?" I asked. "What do you mean?" replied the Guide. "Well, who pays the Maoist bribes?" His face fell, he had hoped we'd be dumb enough not to ask that question. My husband replied for him, "I think the answer is me."

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Food! Glorious Food!

As a vegetarian, finding food to eat in Serbia was A LOT harder than Nepal has turned out to be. Partly that's because Nepalis don't eat a lot of meat traditionally; also, tourism fuels restaurants and 54% of tourists are from India, who are often vegetarians.

Plus there's the added benefit that hardly anyone smokes here so eating out is a pleasure instead of torture. In fact the guys at the Cybercafe I'm in just asked a smoking German tourist to step outside. Yeah baby!!! Never would happen in a hundred million years in Serbia.

Pokhara has at least two dozen restaurants. Even the fancy ones are fairly cheap; the most I've paid for a three-course meal plus drinks was about $10. It's cheaper to eat out than to buy stuff and cook, so I eat out every day. What I've learned:

#1. All menus are alike -
You can always spot newbie tourists because they stand outside restaurants carefully studying the menu, as though that will help them to evaluate whether this is a good place to eat. No matter what the signage says (ie. "Indian" "Chinese", etc. ) most menus pretty much have the exact same list of food. And if they don't list it, trust me, they'll make it for you.

#2. Menus list every kind of food possible
A typical menu is 10 pages long. It lists everything by country - ie. Indian Food, Chinese Food, Continental Food, Pizza, Nepali Food, Tibetan Food, and my personal favorite, Mexican Food. That's right, every single chef at every single restaurant has to cook on command menus from at least five-seven countries. Perhaps unremarkably, everything has roughly the same ingedients, just arranged in different ways.

#3. Don't expect authenticity
No matter what they say it is, every dish has a slightly freaky Nepalese take. Example: "Mexican" food features "Goulash Roti" which is meat stew ladeled over mashed potatoes. All "Chinese" food is either deep fried with egg-and-flour batter or has a fried egg on top, or better yet, both. And "garlic bread" is a wedge of cold bread with raw garlic and butter shoved in the middle of it. (Photo of piece above.)

#4. Order long before you're really hungry
Food is cooked from scratch when you order it. Nothing is prepped beforehand. So you're sitting there for 30 minutes to an hour or longer before your food will appear. Maybe halfway through the waiter will take pity on you and bring you the drinks you ordered. I've taken to placing orders, racing back to my hotel to 'freshen up' (restaurant bathrooms are indescribable and should be avoided at all costs), and then coming back with the day's paper to read while I wait for my supper.

#5. "Spicy" isn't spicy hot
Ok if you're from the American white-bread heartland, you may think this food is spicy. I, however, have yet to taste anything close to hot sauce or hot peppers. Next time I'm bringing a bottle of Frank's with me.

#6. Must-order dishes:
o Lemon-Sauce Broiled Fish-- fresh from the lake, with a side order of the best fries on the planet. (see top of photo above) Eat carefully, fish is NOT deboned and those bones are tiny and plentiful.

o Hot-sour veg soup - tangy, fresh, rich, delightful.

o Chilli Taco -- Kidney beans cooked in a sort-of-hot tomato sauce folded into a home-made corn shell. Tastes really good, just not remotely Mexican. But who cares?

o Nepali set dinner -- A lot like Indian food only blander. You get little bowls of standard stuff (yellow-lentil dall, a veg curry, a meat or curd curry, yugurt) arranged on a circular platter around a heap of rice.

o Mo-mos -- steamed dumplings filled with anything you want (see photo above.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Nepal Early Winter - Not That Cold!

My number one message about Pokhara to my concerned friends and family as well as the entire native population is: It's Not That Cold Here.

Nobody seems to believe me.

I think the whole Mount Everest thing gives everyone back home the impression I'm living on a snow-capped mountain. Well, I can see much of the Annapurna Range from my bedroom window, peaks are only about 30km away... but another universe entirely in terms of altitude. It's only 800 meters above sea level in Pokhara, compared to Fishtail Mountain peak seen above which is 7,000 meters high.

So it's freezing up there - snow up to one's armpits in places- while it's sunny and sub-tropical here. Really, honestly, truly. Look, here's proof.
This is a pic I snapped of a banana tree in bloom in my neighborhood. It's not the only one, this place is festooned with them.

It's actually around 50-60 degrees here most days, but so sunny that it can feel quite warmer on my sheltered balcony. I wind up dressing just as I would for an early autumn morning in Maine -- in layers of long-sleeved t-shirts and cardigans which I peel off as the day gets warmer.

The thing is, no one has apparently told the natives it's not all that cold here. Because they are huddled and bundled against the Terrible Winter Chill at about the same time I'm unzipping my sweater.

My entire life I've been surrounded by people saying, "It's not THAT cold! Stop fussing. What's your problem?" So I cannot begin to describe the bliss I feel when I see men in down jackets anxiously adjusting their double-wrapped scarves. And it's like 55 degrees out.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Life Before Plastic Flipflops in Tibet & Nepal

Here in Pokhara as with most of the poorer Asian countries, plastic flipflops are ubiquitous. You see the German tourists stumping around in their sensible hiking boots, the ultra-feminine Indian women in delicate, painted leather sandles (often with little kitten heels), a few Americans in sneakers, and practically everyone else is wearing plastic flipflops.

Leather is not used here very much - partly because cows are sacred and also people were until recently too poor to eat much meat, so it's not like there were a lot of spare hides laying around. So I asked our new friend Babu what did people wear before there were plastic flipflops?

He looked at me astonished at my dumb American naivete. "Their bare feet of course!"

I looked at him astonished at his dumb male naivete. "Not everyone. Of course there were shoes!"

Well of course we were both right. Most people were in bare feet, but I was delighted to meet a (female) shopkeeper from Tibet who told me all about the lovely wooden sandals people used to wear. See my snapshot above.

"How do they stay on?" asked my husband. The shopkeeper and I exchanged a look, really men can be so unintelligent sometimes. "You hold on with your big toe." I picked one up - it was extraordinarly light - almost like a sandal made of balsa wood, although tougher than that. It would be delightful to wear. Tibet's version of Holland's wooden clogs.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

A Tale of Two Airports...

The best thing I can say about New Delhi International Airport is that it is the gateway to all sorts of romantic places:
However, it is - and I use the following term with a full knowledge of the poetic glories and possibilities of the English language - a butthole.

I wish to stress this buttholeness is not at all the fault of the cleaning staff (typical member pictured below) who ceaselessly throughout the day do the best they can wielding the whispy little brooms with which they have been provided. I have never in my highly-traveled life seen an airport cleaner circle about looking for something to do so relentlessly and untireingly.

Frankly, the only way this place will be any better is if they either (A) Powerwash it with Lysol and then tear the building down and rebuild it or (B) tear the building down already. Instead, Indian authorities have in their wisdom chosen option (C) which is to put up large signs saying "Pardon our appearance while we renovate. We are adding more retail stores which you'll enjoy so much you will wish your flight was delayed!" Honest to god. I'm not making this up.

Besides the available destinations and the cleaning ladies, the only other thing I liked about the Delhi airport were the Middle Eastern women in full burquas. I've seen women in burquas briefly before at a distance when traveling but never up close and personal, and so had all sorts of feminist preconceptions which are now smashed to pieces. Downtrodden is not the word. Forceful and domineering is more like it.

The baggage security men were thoroughly cowed by one of them as she shot out an imperious hand giving directions. And I saw an entire raft of alarmed airport staff running at the bidding of another as she fretted over an aged relative in a wheelchair.

For an airline traveler, getting to Nepal was a relief though. Both of Kathmandu's airport terminals (international and domestic) are much nicer than Delhi's are. Admittedly, Nepal copes with perhaps 10,000 travelers per month per terminal which is a tinier load by an order of magnitude than Delhi. Both Kathmandu terminals are also fairly old. They feel like a timewarp -- a US airport in the 1950s, although far more worn out.

Here you can see the check-in gate for Yeti airlines, with the old red luggage weighing machines.

And here's a view of Kathmandu domestic terminal cleaning lady, complete with a New Delhi-inspired skimpy broom, as she walks past a pile of diesel cannisters in the main lobby. My husband estimates that's about a ton of fuel. Well, I guess it's as secure there as anywhere.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Egg Delivery at Delhi Airport: Don't Breathe

When you are planning to visit India for the first time, everything you read says, "Oh my gosh you will be in such a state of shock your first day or two! The poverty, the crowds of people, the foreignness....etc."

Perhaps suprisingly, none of that actually turned out to be shocking in the least to me. My Serbian husband was startled by homeless people sleeping in the streets - he's never really seen that before whereas it was a normal part of life for nearly 20 years for me when I lived in downtown Washington DC.

The shocking thing for me was the smell of the air - no it's not laden with rare spices of the Orient. It's laden with dust and diesel fumes. So much diesel in fact that I could barely breathe. The stink comes into the airplane air just after you land.... a thin nasty smell.

Then when you walk off the ramp into the airport, the smell thickens and your eyes start blinking and itching. The air inside the baggage claim area was filled with a haze that reminded me a lot of Los Angeles on bad air days circia 1980. And here in this photo of a guy delivering eggs, taken from my open taxi window is the typical smoggy air outside. That's as clear as it got for two days.

I had planned to go for long walks the two days we were in Delhi, resting before heading off to Nepal. I wanted to see everything I could possibly see - gardens, buildings, people. But, although I made a valiant effort, the smell and the way my lungs hurt made me beat a hasty retreat to our hotel room after a couple of hours. I'm sure with time I could adjust, and I'm sure it's not quite so bad all year round... but honestly, it was bad enough.

I stuck all the clothing we wore into a plastic bag in our luggage - isolating it - and washed the stench off as soon as we got to Nepal. Pollution is also pretty bad in Kathmandu and Pokhara business district (away from Lakeside), not not anything like Delhi.

Whichever company can make cheap engines (trucks, motorcycles, household generators) for the second and third world that don't emit fumes will profoundly change life for the better for hundreds of millions of people. There is no safe level for lead intake in the human body, especially for children. Not even one speck is safe, let alone this murky soup.

Oh yeah, and it will help global warming too. So, if you know of a company to invest in, I will definitely buy some stock in support!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Cows of Nepal

Although Indian cities are famous for having sacred cows wandering about the streets, I was very disappointed to not see a single cow in downtown Delhi. Turns out the government's been trying to shift them out of the central city as part of modernization efforts.

Luckily for cow lovers in Nepal, neither Kathmandu nor Pokhara officials have adopted this Indian policy. As you can see from this utterly typical snapshot from Pokhara Lakeside, cows roam the streets freely. In fact, they placidly understand themselves to be more important than anyone or anything else ... such as taxis and buses which must swerve around them.

During rush hour in the middle of an extremely busy street in Kathmandu last week, I was surprised to see two cows lying as quietly and contentedly as though they were in a field of hay for their midday nap, one's head rested on the other's flank. You could tell they thought less of the cars, trucks, and motorcycles rocketing by than they would some flies buzzing around their tails.

Being a cow fan myself, it's quite pleasant to have them roaming the streets. Although sometimes it can be disconcerting -- the thin, extremely vertical path to the World Peace Pagoda was blocked by a cow for about 30 minutes yesterday, who having gotten herself into such a predicament near the top of the hill, decided to chew cud for awhile before extricating herself from it. Hikers on both ends of the path - descending and ascending - had to wait.

If you are in Sombor Serbia reading this and you want to imagine how it would be to have independent cows (owned by no one) living downtown, next time you go for a walk and see a stray dog, just mentally imagine that dog is a cow instead.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

In Honor of World Toilet Day: Highs & Lows of Nepal

This Monday was World Toilet Day, but I figured for this post better late than never. Which is pretty much the way the Nepali government feels about the toilet situation here. Roughly 80% of the population have mobile phones, but only 70% use toilets routinely (vs the joys of nature). The newspapers note more than 15,000 Nepali children die every year due to related illness. The government pledges to make huge strides by 2015.

Luckily things are better than average in Pokhara where the regional government gave away toilet-building supplies (mainly concrete blocks) to all households for free a few years ago, along with education about what to do with them. Today's Himalayan Newspaper featured an impassioned op-ed on the next step -- getting people to think of the toilet as a place of relaxation and enjoyment, instead of a dirty nasty thing to be avoided in conversation and thought. The thinking being: an enjoyed toilet will become a more sanitary one.

In that spirit, I share with you a photo of the toilet I've most enjoyed in my entire life -- indeed one that my husband personally labeled "The Best Toilet in the World". And the joy of it is, it is here in Pokhara Nepal!

It's fairly comfortable, and the flush is unusually quiet (yet effective). But the best bit is the "personal wash attachment" you see there at the left on the wall. Many toilets in India mix the functions of bidet and toilet so you turn a knob at the side and the toilet itself starts jetting water you-know-where. I find this disconcerting and a bit awkward. This Nepali attachment is far better.

And best of all, as you know if you've read my past blog post on Serbian bidets, I have the comfort of knowing my husband will never be tempted to wash his feet in this fixture.

Our Winter Apartment in Pokhara Nepal

Two months ago, to pass the time during an all-night bus trip from Zadar Croatia to Sombor Serbia, I pulled out my little notebook and began to draw a picture just as I used to as a child in boring school classes. The picture, as always, was a blueprint of my dream home. I fussed for an hour or so with where precisely the bathrooms would go, indoor-outdoor kitchen layout and very satisfying things like that, and then fell asleep.

Imagine my surprise when waking two months later in a hotel room on another continent to push the heavy curtains aside and see my dream house across the alley, glistening in the sunshine!

It is in fact, a small guesthouse serving tourists in Pokhara Nepal who come to trek the Annapurna circuit. I am certainly no trekker (a fact amply proven to my embarrassment yesterday afternoon when I stood heaving chest and thumping heart to one side of a local path so as to let a tiny child carrying a 4'x5' foot bundle of hay pass me on his way up the hill.) However, I am married to a Serbian trekker always dreamed of mountains beyond Montenegro and Croatia.

So, now we are all moved in -- I to my dream home which will serve all winter as our "Base Camp Pokhara" as my husband goes off on a series of his dream treks. Our apartment is in the top left corner of the picture. It's filled with light and air. There is no TV, no landline phone, no heating system. And hot water showers are best taken in late afternoon when the sun's had time to warm up the rooftop tank. Don't plan on washing your hair on cloudy days. I guess next time I fall asleep with blueprints dancing in my head on the bus from Zadar to Sombor I should be a bit more explicit about the amenities!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Wintering in Nepal - la la la

Sorry it's been so long, but I am an extremely talented traveler and managed to contract the dreaded Asian Travel Stomach (cramps, fever, exhaustion) about the second we arrived in Nepal for the Winter. For which I can safely blame India because we made a pit stop in Delhi for two days on our way to Nepal. A few hours after we got off the plane in Kathmandu, I was very sick indeed.

It's been a full week now and I can leave my bed, stroll very quietly and slowly down the street for a bit, then sit at a cafe for an hour or two, and then go lie down again. Which, as things turn out, is absolutely the most perfect way to transition from a Hectic American Lifestyle to the far slower pace of life here in Nepal. I am quite happy to sit quietly in the sunshine and stare at plants and people and dust motes, la la la. Maybe drink a pot of tea, la la la. Do a few hours work for my office back in the US, send it off via Internet Cafe, go lie down again. La la la.

I seriously do not know if I have ever been this relaxed in my life, even with chemical assistance. (By the way, San Miguel beer here is a great replacement for Jelen Pivo to which I grew much addicted while in Serbia this past Summer and Fall. Plus, they serve it in liter-sized bottles, which is very helpful because cafe wait staff here are about as slow and relaxed as I am right now. Don't tell me beer is bad in moderation for Asian tummy, I don't care. La la la.)

I will post more photos etc, including notes from Delhi - the extremity of air pollution there was quite a shock to me and No One in Belgrade has Diddly to Complain About on the pollution front. But for now, it's time for me to go la la la.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Things You Are Prohibited From Bringing Into a Bank in Sombor Serbia

Unfortunately this sign is displayed on the wall immediately under the teller, so you may have already entered the bank, walked past the security guard, waited in line, and then come up to the counter by the time you notice that, whups, you're not supposed to have a gun in your hand.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Stray Dogs of Serbia

Here's one of my favorite stray dogs of Sombor Serbia as he jauntily trots along the main drag on the day they ripped up the pavement to do municipal work:

The dozen or so stray dogs of Sombor are well-known town characters. Back in the US, before I lived in Sombor, I was filled with horror and pity whenever my husband mentioned the stray dogs. No shelter to feed them and help them find a loving home, no vet service to spay them so they would not be burdened with litter after litter of unwanted puppies....

My husband was similarly horrified when he learned our US town had no strays - no option for a dog between ownership or euthanasia. And the whole idea of spaying any animal outraged him - how could Americans mutilate a defenseless animal?

He's not changed his mind and in fact heartily feels our own dog, originally adopted from a shelter, would be much happier as a stray albeit with visitation and feeding rights. After meeting the strays of Sombor, I'm inclined to agree with him.

Sombor's strays are the happiest dogs I've ever seen in my life. Confident, peppy, joyful, self-important. They dart busily about town sometimes playing together in small packs, sometimes alone. They all appear well fed, but not fat. (Restaurants, bakeries, and people put out scraps for them at night.) They are all smaller breeds, maybe 15-35 pounds. I never felt threatened and never heard them bark annoyingly.

Serbs love dogs. Most houses have dogs, and all Sombor apartment buildings allow dog-ownership (infrequent in the States.) Domestic dogs are clearly well looked after, but their frustration and jealousy of the stray dogs' lifestyle can be palpable. Oh to be allowed off leash! Oh to be allowed to go outside and play wherever you want all day and all night long!

I'm not stupidly naive. I'm sure Sombor's good-natured strays would be far better off if they had access to medical care, a secure warm place to sleep in the winter, and adoption services for those that prefer the security of a home (you can tell at a glance which dogs these are - it's all in demeanor and personality.) I'm also sure that strays in larger Serbian cities and perhaps smaller towns, might have a far tougher life. As a mid-sized city, Sombor may be as good as it gets.

Sometimes I say, "If we lived full time in Sombor, I would have to do something for the stray dogs." My husband always replies, "Why do you Americans give so much to animals when people should come first? If you have something to give, go down to the town orphanage." It's a thought to consider...

In the meantime, here's a snapshot I took of two strays snuggled in the warmth of a pile of brush downtown. Incredibly adorable. And they'd be miserable if I tried to confine them to live in a yard like American dogs.

Family Emergency: Got any notes to post from Serb Unity Congress in SF?

If you are (or were) at the Serb unity congress this weekend, please do let me know via comments here. I'd love to hear what the Congress was like, what the key message of the politicans was, and what the typical attendees were talking about. Please do report on this on my behalf - thank you!

P.S. The emergency: my step-son who was to accompanied me to the Congress (and do a little ancillary frolicking in San Francisco which is littered with beautiful girls, great wine, and fabulous clubs) had to be rushed to the hospital last night with acute appendicitis. He's going to be fine although it hurts a great deal to do anything that uses the stomach muscles, including sitting up, walking, laughing, and, as he pointed out, farting is quite painful.

The most important thing I learned from the experience (aside from that fart factoid) was how Serb I have apparently become. I saw nothing unusual in the fact that all of us in the family, Aunt, Father, Step-Mother and Sister, dropped everything and rushed to the hospital to be by his side before and after surgery. All of us also changed our plans for today so we could be with him during at least part of his first day of recovery.

I could see from the hospital staff's eyes how unusual it was for such a large group to gather bedside. Then, I dimly remembered when I had my appendix out as a 15-year old. My boarding school sent me to a hospital about 30 minutes from my hometown. From what I recall, only my mother drove out to see me in the hospital. It was quite a happy time though, I lay back and relished all the attention from nurses and the dazzling idea of getting out of so many school classes with a "free" pass. The idea of all my siblings and father coming to see me would have been too weird for comprehension, so I didn't miss it. And all aunts and uncles lived hundreds, even thousands of miles away, which is quite normal in the US.

However, Serbs gain strength and warmth from family togetherness -- or at least the bunch who have taken me under their wing do. So it seemed horrible to me to leave our 23-year old son all alone by himself in the hospital last night. We were quite relieved to get his phone call at 7:15am the next morning saying, "The doctor tells me I must go, the paperwork will be done in a few minutes. Can you come pick me up?"

Later he admitted things hadn't quite gone like that... the nurse had told him he could "maybe leave in a day or two" but when he pressured her, she allowed that as an adult he had the legal power to check himself out and go home early. Eager to be cosseted in the heart of the family home, naturally he used that power immediately. And I can't blame him.

Would an American 23 year old have done the same thing? I can't imagine it. Of course the likelihood that a 23 year old American would still be living anywhere near his parents' home, much less in it, is fairly small.

I can definitively say, I like the Serb way better. I'm enormously glad our son does too. So I guess I am at a kind of Serb Unity Congress this weekend -- in our own living room.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

How Much is That Bidet in the Window?

I frequently walked by this bathroom supply store near our home in Sombor this summer. They opened in 1991, and you've got to admire the resiliency of a business that made it through civil war, insane inflation, and NATO bombing... coming out the other side of a dozen straight years of crisis still healthy. In fact, their Italian tile displays made me nearly faint with pleasure. But then I get that way about gorgeous housewares.

The tiles aren't the only thing that's much nicer than my local Home Depot back in the USA. Here's a close-up pic of a typical display window:
Take a look at the porcelain item in the bottom left corner. No it's not a toilet with its seat missing. It's something you'll never ever see in a US plumbing display, or probably in an American private home either. It's a bidet. And it's not the only one in Sombor either.

Strolling by one afternoon this September I remarked to my husband how pleased I was that our own Sombor bathroom had a bidet, the first I've ever lived with up close and personal. He replied, "Yes, that was my (first) wife's idea, not mine." I couldn't think of a rejoinder beyond a big honking "Duh!", so remained politely silent.

Then after a half a minute of thought he spoke again, "You know, I really like it too. It's so useful." "Useful?" "Yes, it's great to wash your feet in." Yuck! Too much information.

That said, I'd like to compliment the women of Sombor, and of Europe, for convincing their men to buy bidets in such great numbers that bidets are seen as essential equipment to be rightfully included in any bathroom suppliers' window. Bravo. Your American sisters are far, far behind you.

Monday, October 22, 2007

I Scandalize the Neighborhood...

Since we came back from Serbia last month I've been rejoicing in two things:

#1. Heaps of Hot Water:
American showers with nearly endless supplies of hot water are WONDERFUL. I let the water run and run and run. I know I'm a gross-carbon-footprint-wastrel. After Serbian bathrooms I don't care anymore about being environmentally correct. No more little tank mounted on the shower wall with a temperature needle diving toward cold five minutes after the shower starts. No more having to turn off the water, after I put on the shampoo, to conserve enough hot water so I don't freeze when washing it out afterwards. Glory be.

#2. Laundry Takes 35 Minutes:
I do NOT understand. Washing machine technology has been nailed down since the 1940s. Aside from maybe adding a digital clock, nothing has changed. So why do Serbian washing machines take more than two hours to do the job it takes an American machine 35 minutes to do? It's certainly not because there's more work - Serbian machines take about 1/2 the load a US machine will. And it's not because they do a better job - the results are the same. I cannot conceive of how a Serbian family, especially with babies, gets the laundry done given how insanely long it takes.

However, (this is where the Scandal comes in) the Serbs have one thing right for summer months -- they hang laundry outside to dry. Aside from a few hand-wash-only dainties, I never hung laundry in my life until we moved there. Everything feels crisper, smells wonderful, and needs less ironing. (OK, who am I kidding? If you know me, you'll know I haven't ironed since the late 1980s.)

So this weekend I trekked to the store to purchase rope and clips, and then I asked my husband to put up a laundry line for us in the backyard. It is the only laundry line in the entire neighborhood and possibly the entire town. And there's a load of wash flapping out there right now, scandalizing the neighbors. However, they can't do anything about it. We're lucky, we don't live in one of those neighborhoods where there are rules and restrictions about this. (Can you imagine trying to explain to Serbs it's actually not legal to hang laundry outside in parts of America?)

But, even as I hung that laundry in the sunshine I sent a prayer of thankfulness up for the existence of our dryer. I never saw a dryer in any Serb home we visited. They must exist, but not perhaps frequently. I cannot imagine the horribleness of trying to get laundry dry all winter long without one.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Serbs Don't Say "I'm Sorry" the Way Americans Do

"I'm sorry" is not a phrase that trips lightly off the Serb tongue. Serbs do not apologize quickly and easily the way Americans do. It simply never enters their minds. They also may find it odd, of not a bit offensive, when Americans apologize in the course of daily life the way we do.

American apologies come in two categories -- the first is the "Whups by mistake" offense. You may have bumped into someone in the hallway by mistake, be late for a meeting, or double booked a flight so now there are too many passengers for seats. When you say, "I'm sorry", everyone knows you're not totally anguished or anything. But you are at least polite about it, acknowledging other people's feelings.

If you were not to say "I'm sorry" in those circumstances, many Americans would be fairly upset - sometimes more by the lack of an apology as a courtesy than by the actual problem that prompted it.

I've known Serbs, completely unknowingly, to upset and even outrage American clients and co-workers in this manner in international business. It doesn't occur to a Serb that an apology is called for for such a little thing. It doesn't occur to Americans that the Serbs aren't being deliberately impolite.

The second American apology category is the Big Screw Up, often part and parcel of a Big Fight. One person (or both) is shaking with outrage and the other person better darn well ante up an "I'm sorry" in a timely manner or risk seriously damaging the relationship. The apology in this case may just mean, "I've cooled down, I love you, I am extending an olive branch of peace, let's work this out together without crazy emotions." Or it may mean, "I acknowledge I did something terribly wrong, and I regret it. I empathize with your point of view on this, it's my bad. Can you forgive me?"

If this apology is offered American to American, it may well work. If, however, this gesture of reconciliation is offered by an American to a Serb, the Serb's reaction may range from being completely unmoved to becoming even more pissed off.

"If you are sorry, then why did you do the thing in the first place?" wonders the Serb. "Do you think with two little words now that you can wipe out your error from my memory and everything will go back to the way it was before? This is not the Catholic Church, you can't get your sins washed away like they didn't exist just by saying a few words. You Americans are not sincere people, no one who says 'Sorry' so often can really mean it. These are just words without meaning."

Now that our little Serb-American family has been together for three years, my husband has learned to say "I'm sorry" more. (OK, it was twice, but I treasure those two times, deeply.) And I've learned to stop saying "I'm sorry" as a kneejerk reaction so frequently.

Which is fine for us, but the adjustment has screwed up my American-to-American relations. Earlier this year I completely messed up with a close relative. I called her to say she was right, I was wrong. After nearly an hour on the phone she was still fairly upset. Why? "You say you understand and you did the wrong thing," she cried," but you never said I"m sorry!" Whups.

Now I have to learn to adjust my apologies for the culture I'm in.

Friday, October 12, 2007

"Thank Heavens for the Language Barrier"

There's a line in the wonderful and intelligent film, Spanglish, where the lead character, a Hispanic immigrant working as a housekeeper for a wealthy California household says, "Thank Heavens for the language barrier."

The first time we heard it, our entire household roared with laughter. Then it crept into regular usage. Someone, my husband or I, would get annoyed with each other and say something that perhaps would have gone unsaid (or been said more nicely) with cooler heads. Luckily, when you're annoyed, you tend to lapse into slang in your language of birth. His is Serbo-Croatian slang and mine is American slang.

So, neither of us would quite understand what the other person was saying. You can tell from the tone and face of course. Arms being flung into the air, things like that. But, we've discovered if you don't understand the precise wording, it's not so upsetting. There's a curiously relieving distance between the other person's biting tone and your heart.

Which may be why somewhere in the conversation, someone (usually one of the kids) mutters, "Thank heavens for the language barrier."

So, when my husband decided to wear his horrible, new, clunky leather sandals all day yesterday, my remark of "Crunchy Granola!" didn't put a dent in his excited pride. And when, after sniffing the air outside, he decided to wear socks with those sandals, my comment of "You look like a dork" didn't douse the bounce in his step. "What's a dork?" he said.

Well, there may be a word for Dork in Srpski, but it's not in our dictionary. I know, because in the heat of the moment to make my feelings heard, I looked it up.

But you know, I'd like to thank the dictionary makers for not putting slang in. They kept the language barrier intact. And waking this morning, I thought over yesterday and how happy he was striding out into the day with his Brand New Sandals and I don't have the heart to put a little arrow of poison into that joy. I guess we all can be dorky at times, and it doesn't matter as long as we are happy together.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

When You Get Vaccinations for Foreign Travel...

... don't make my mistake and do it on a Tuesday. Choose a Friday night or Saturday morning instead.

As part of our prep for our upcoming trip to Nepal, we got typhoid, hepatitis, polio and tetanus shots yesterday at a travel clinic. (Given the rising incidence of rabid dogs and possibly monkeys in Nepal, my husband also wanted the rabies shot, but I wimped out because that one is supposed to hurt a lot. I'll just avoid animals there.) Within a few minutes of getting shots we both had headaches and felt tired. I crashed at nine last night and didn't wake until nine this morning. And despite two liters of Diet Pepsi, it's noon here now and my bed is looking awfully inviting.

But I have to run into the office, so will buck up. Next time though, I'll get shots on the weekend!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Dumbest Thing a US-Based Serb Ever Said to Me

"Our son is dating an American." Said in a dramatic tone of horror and dismay, just as you might say, "Our son is doing Heroin."

I, the blatantly, doesn't-even-speak-Srpski-yet, American wife was standing right next to my Serb husband when this remark was addressed to ... me! I quite literally could not think of a reply for a moment, and then nodded in commiseration, "Yes, well that's been known to happen."

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Random Acts of Refrigeration

You never know true culture shock until you refrigerate with natives of another country; especially those who spent their formative years with a very different-sized fridge than you did.

Strikingly few things are agreed upon as "must-refrigerate" by both the American (me) and the Serbs (everyone else) in our US household. These include milk, lumps of cheese (but not grated cheese), lunch meats, and lettuce. Some things, such as most fresh vegetables, get refrigerated by default because there's no pantry so the Serbs can't figure out where else to put them.

However, the Serbs feel the proper place for partly eaten food, such as a casserole or a jar of taco sauce clearly marked "Refrigerate After Opening", is in the oven or cupboards. They are genuinely mystified when I discover these items sometimes days later, wail with worry, and either throw them out or bundle them up for the fridge immediately.

I, on the other hand, am equally mystified why our fridge is packed with unopened canned goods such as anchovies and never-cracked bottled goods such as spare jars of mustard. (In fact there are three, never-opened huge jars of Grey Poupon in there right now, but somebody keeps putting the half-empty ketchup back in the cupboard instead.)

But then you know, if this is the biggest article of confusion and stress in our multinational family, then I am a lucky woman indeed. Lucky, lucky, lucky.

From Vermont to the California Coast in 30 Minutes... in Croatia

This morning's mail at our US home brought a new Classic Journeys catalog -- upscale walking tours with gourmet food in places like Southern Tuscany, Provence, and the newest hot-spot Croatia. Prices start at (to me insanely high) US$3400 per person for week-long trips to your choice of either the area around Dubrovnik on the southern coast near Montenegro or the Istrian Coast up north near Italy.

Nearly all of the estimated seven billion Euros spent by tourists in Croatia this past year were spent in coastal areas like these. In fact, when you drive along the coast, every single town and village is awash with Zimmer (hotel) signs, so much so in most areas that you wonder if there is anything at all in Croatia besides hotels, vacation villas, and auto-bus camps all butted up against the Adriatic.

Here's the funny thing: if you go just 30 minutes inland, there's an entirely different Croatia that few tourists see. Aside from an Olympic ski team training camp, there are nearly no hotels. Nothing but scenery, sheep, cows, horses, and a few natives... and it looks surprisingly like Vermont and the loveliest parts of New Hampshire. Places, that in the US would be crowded with tourists on beautiful autumn days.

A few snapshots for you to enjoy. A typical winding road... this is a main road for the entire area. Count the cars with me:I took this snapshot of mossy stones and tree trunks while hiking on a woody trail:

Here's another view during my hike, of the bucolic valley opening up from a hill view. My husband says it used to be more open land, but so many small family farms have been abandoned or hardly worked in the past 20 years it's becoming woods now. It's not just due to civil war. The area suffered heavy losses in both world wars and then came a population shift to the coast which Tito's government made possible by building new roads and encouraging tourism so coastal communities could make big bucks in a Zimmer trade. The young generation took off to seek their fortunes, and the elders slowly died out. We've seen that happen plenty to family farms in the US as well of course. Here's a little guest cottage located in this valley that was too sweet not to photograph:
This is a typical village scene:
Unlike Vermont, here if you drive on the road to the coast for just 30 minutes, you'll quickly leave the leafy woods and winter ski areas behind and come abruptly to open hills that remind me greatly of parts of California. Here you can see some semi-wild horses grazing:
And then, just as abruptly, the road curves and goes down, and there you are spat out on the Croatian coast:
And here we are back in Zimmer-Land.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Pull Into a Serb Auto Gas Station & You'll Find...

Propane. For cars. You want gasoline you better get yourself to a place where they sell petrol.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Anyone Gonna Be At Serbian Unity Conference in SF?

I have to be in San Francisco at the end of this month on business, so I'm considering popping over to the Serbian Unity Congress being held at the same time there. Have you been or know anyone who is going? My husband is excited about the band they have playing, Bajaga & Instruktori (although not excited enough to get on a plane for seven hours each way and come with me.) And apparently Milorad Dodik is speaking, who I being completely politically-unaware have no feelings for, but several of my Sombor-based friends say is liked there about as much as George Bush is in the US (ie., not.)

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Flight Home: Jugoslav Airways & Heathrow

Dawn over Vojvodina in the autumn is an incredible thing. The pinks, the yellows, the giant sky of clouds. I guess it's like dawn over Kansas which is also really flat and covered with crops as far as the eye can see.... but no one ever told me dawn over Kansas could beat a Hawaiian sunset. Despite the anxiety of long-distance travel, the magic of a Vojvodina dawn pulled me out of myself completely.

Then we got to Belgrade airport which is tiny (roughly the size of Providence Airport, only way less parking, shorter security lines and about half the flights) and I saw the sweater display at the tourism store.
Why oh why didn't I take the time to go to Slatibor for some sweaters? Next year, it's top priority.

Then we are through security (GREAT uniforms gals, I especially like the epaulets.) and on our plane. I love the crews on JAT airlines, they are very serious about their jobs. I don't know why, but they feel more like Grown Ups than any other airlines' crews. I wish to use this blog as a public forum to apologize about the ipod thing to them right now. I'm sorry. It will not happen again.

JAT pilots are the most talky pilots on this planet. They get on the intercom to make that "welcome to our flight" pilot announcement and it just never ends. I have never heard so many details about our flight path, etc as with the JAT guys. Plus, of course, just like the Serbian Orthodox Priests in America they have to give every single speech twice in its entirety, once in Serb and then in English. (Which, on Easter Sunday just when you think you're coming down the home stretch of the service after standing for more than 90 minutes, and the priest switches languages and starts the entire thing over at the beginning again, can be overwhelming. This also explains why invariably somebody faints during big church services.)

Unfortunately no one who works in flight sales planning at the JAT home office has ever apparently tried to make a connection at Heathrow. The official line (as in written in official documents) "You need a hour and a half between flights to make connections" is so blatantly inaccurate as to make actual Heathrow officials giggle when you mention it to them. I know, I mentioned it to them. Yes, it's in writing, but they never expected anyone to be so naive as to believe them and base flight scheduling on this.

JAT is that naive and I, stupidly, didn't think to double check our flight plans set by the infamous Danny Travel of New York who book so many Serb immigrant flights that they answer the phone "Dobar dan" and have a hard time spelling my name but not my husband's.

Which is how we ended up in standing a Line of Serbs at the Terminal 3 help desk for JAT's partner airline Virgin Atlantic trying to get rebooked to get home somehow because we all missed our connections due to endless security lines in Terminal 2 which you are forced to go through to connect from (or to) JAT airlines and most other flights. Luckily we were able to get rebooked on a British Airways flight later in the day. Unluckily this required going back on a bus to Terminal 2 and those horrible lines yet again to get our old tickets stamped by JAT officials.

We made friends with other Serbs in line though. All agreed what Terminal 2 really needs is a little Serb cafe serving Turkish coffee to security staff and Jelen Pivo to everyone in line (the black and yellow umbrellas would match Heathrow's signage perfectly.)

We also had a fine time meeting the AirItalia service guy who mans the booth for all ticket problems for all Balkan countries as well as Italy. There's a list of central and eastern European national airline logos taped on the counter in front of him so you know he's the right guy to go to. (Hint to JAT: this is a branding and PR no-no your marketing department ought to look into. A small paper sign shared with Uzbekistan Air and 7 others does not make you look impressive. It makes you look like a little dinky country who can't even afford (or need) to have a service booth of their own. And this is the booth every single JAT passenger coming via Heathrow must go to as part of their first experience of "entering" Serbia.)

While we waited for JAT's local admin manager to come up out of the bowels of the building to stamp our tickets, he told us stories about local-based JAT staff. Although the airline is fairly small, the JAT girls (they are mostly female) are obviously larger than life characters in the Heathrow staff scene. Everyone knows them.

BTW: If you are the blonde assistant manager, I agree Heathrow Internal Security have absolutely no sense of humor. They should have understood about your shoes and then that strip tease and subsequent week-long ban would have never happened.

Finally we made it via yet more buses and security lines to Terminal 4 and hence to the sky and home again. Waiting in line at US passport control & customs, I noticed all non-US passport holders were being treated like potential criminals. Everyone was fingerprinted and photographed before being let in the country. Luckily most on our flight took it lightly, laughing. But I can imagine flights from some other countries being mightily affronted.

In a probably futile effort at placation, every US Passport Control Officer's desk has a sign posted in front giving in effect a Customer's Bill of Rights. You have the right to be politely treated and to have your questions answered. You have the right to ask to speak to a supervisor. You have the right to great customer service.

These made me remember a similar sign I'd seen posted in front of nearly every single Heathrow employee including bus drivers' seats, ticketing agents, security people's stands, even gate managers. I wish I wrote down precisely what they said, but in effect the words were, "Please do not be rude or act aggressively toward Heathrow staff. They deserve to work in an environment where people are not shouting at them all the time."

The dichotomy between these two sets of national signs -- in the US you have a right to polite customer service, in the UK the service staff have a right to polite customers -- made me smile.

And now, off to eat massive quantities of Vietnamese food. Good to be home in America where such things are possible!

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Thanks Zlatko! Orphans Rescued

A last minute thanks to my pal Zlatko who after reading my post from earlier today came over to my house in his trusty old red Yugo to help me transport the computer equipment to the Sombor orphanage.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The Last of the Summer Tomatoes... Preparing to Leave Sombor for the Winter

Today is our official last day in Sombor for this year (but we'll be back in months and years to come on a more permanent basis.) The tomatoes in the greenmarket are the very last stragglers from 2007's harvest. Small, spotty, uneven. Just a few weeks ago, these would have been thrown out rather than offered for sale. Now I buy as many as I think I can stuff into my mouth before we have to leave for the airport. They are utterly rich with flavor. The best ever.

As we scurry about packing and putting the house in order for its winter rest, I am continually remembering things I had meant to do but somehow never had time for. Oh no! We never took the tour of the Boreli shoe factory at the edge of town... we never went to Slatibor to buy wool sweaters ... we didn't hike in the hills outside Novi Sad, in fact aside from the bus station we didn't visit Novi Sad at all ... we didn't try out Belgrade's sole Mexican restaurant... we forgot to bring our old computer over to the orphanage in town (this I feel very badly about)... We only visited one of Sombor's 20+ painters' ateliers... and I fell down on my express desire to take Serb language lessons every single day...etc.

There is so much to be done that I am already itching to return. However, the fall weather is well dug in now. It's chilly at night and what my husband calls "fresh" during the days. I definitely did not bring clothing for this - when we left the US all I'd heard about were overused air conditioners causing fires in Belgrade and German tourists arrested for biking about naked in 105 degree heat. So I packed linen skirts and short-sleeved tops. Just seven weeks later, I'm freezing all the time.

Why "all the time?" Well that's because ladies and gentleman, the image at the left is what a typical Sombor (and for all I know, Belgrade) home heating system looks like. Every Serb reading this will say "Duh." Every American will say, "HUH???"

When I first saw this wood stove in our house, I assumed it was there because the house is nearly 100 years old and nobody had ever upgraded properly. So it was quite a shock when during our first week we visited a friend's newly and lavishly renovated home to see a brand new stove IDENTICAL to this one, only even bigger.

And it clearly wasn't there for decorative, celebrating-the-Serbia-of-our-forefathers purposes. It was intended as the sole heating system for the home's open plan kitchen and living room.

These stoves work very well once you get fire built up in them for a bit. But, you can't just flip a switch and Bam! your whole house is evenly warm 15 minutes later. You also can't get super-picky about adjusting heat by a few degrees. (but then my response is who needs to? As long as it is what any man on this planet would consider overheated inside, I'm perfectly comfortable.)

And then there is the smell. As we took our final walk about town last night, the air was loaded with the scent of charcoal fires. I don't mean barbeque smell, and I don't mean romantic wood fire smell. I mean Serbian heating stove charcoal is in a class by itself. It doesn't smell nasty, but it sure doesn't smell breathe-in-lungfuls-good. I'm told many people here have bronchial infections in the wintertime.

So, although I will miss Sombor and fervently wish we could have stayed longer this time, perhaps that fervency is mixed with a bit of lucky-me. I have the freedom to come and go as I please, staying when it's lovely and moving on when the charcoal air gets a bit much.

The Going-Away Parties Begin: Two Fishy Nights (Serb Food Part III)

My first video should appear here, but Blogger Video is having trouble with it - maybe in a few hours. Anyway it's a bit dark but you can see our host circling not-so-cautiously around what looks like a huge wok. It's sitting on a tripod over a fiercely burning little wood fire he made in the corner of his concrete driveway. The other guests told me this is a typical Serb outdoor frypan for manly cooking. (Like the US, men cook outside, women in.)

Earlier he'd filled it to the brim with vegetable oil and then when the oil started boiling, tossed in four entire freshwater fish which had been battered with corn flour. Now you see him frantically poking and turning the fish with a spatula while the oil spills over the edges making the fire flare so crazily that we spectators on the balcony were laughing and cheering. Our poor host though was terribly worried - what if the fish burned too much?

When after just a few short minutes cooking time per fish, he scooped them onto an awaiting platter and held it up to the light, his worst fears were confirmed and his wife openly horrified. The fish looked like black fish-shaped pieces of charcoal.

I, however, was delighted. It's not for nothing I spent much of my youth eating blackened fish in many of America's restaurants. I'm enormously fond of crackly burned fish skin, and know the meat underneath can be unusually tender due to the quickness of cooking. And so it was -- utterly delicious. I even persuaded one of the other guests to taste the black skin - he claimed he liked it too. Everyone else threw theirs away on the bone plate scrap-heap... which I rummaged through for more skin until I caught my host's unhappy eye. OK, enough's enough.

So I settled back and asked the other guests who were Serbs who'd visited the US in the past, if there were any US foods they missed? "Chinese food," said one. "Mexican nachos," said another. Which just goes to show you what's memorable about American food isn't exactly American... or maybe it is. You can get both nachos and Chinese food in nearly every town in the US, even ones far smaller than Sombor. A nation of immigrants, many of us eat food from around the world routinely. The hardest thing for many Americans to get used to in foreign travel is that people in most other countries only eat their own food plus maybe pizza and burgers. We go somewhere, taste the local stuff, love it but get bored after a while, and ask "Where is the nearest Thai restaurant?" Unless we are in a global city like London or Sydney, we are doomed to disappointment.

Anyway, my husband and I are leaving for a month in the US on Thursday so last night's dinner was one of several celebrations as we say goodbye to Sombor friends for awhile.

On Monday night we revisited the very best Fish Restaurant in Sombor, Riblja Carda Andric, which sits on the canal outside of town. They only serve fish and it's all spectacularly well done in a stunning setting with stone terraces and little gardens sweeping down to the water, that makes me want to throw away my entire life to build a house by a canal that copies this place.

But then our guests Maria and Serge, who own Cafe De Sol, the equally lovely cafe-bar next door to Andric, told us how damp and cold the air is in the wintery off-season, making their lives there slightly uncomfortable. Nevertheless, they intend to stay because of the beauty of the place. You can put up with quite a bit of discomfort for beauty.

Luckily our waiter, a tall guy who'd emigrated from Zadar Croatia, quickly brought both Maria and I warm blankets so we could cuddle at the table while our respective husbands told us, "What are you doing? It's not cold at all!" A lovely time was had by all.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Fall Shoe & Boot News From Serbia & Croatia

No one except other shoe-lovers will appreciate this post, so if you are not a shoe-fanatic, then skip it.

This post is based solely on personal observations, so it may be entirely wrong. But I've got a keen eye for footwear whereever I travel, so I bet it's at least partly correct.

Firstly, unlike what upscale stores and shoe advertising here are showing, most young women (by which I infer they are hip to what's real in fashion vs what's hyped) are wearing no heels at all. Above you'll see an absolutely typical flat-heel slouchy boot being sold and widely worn for fall in Sombor Serbia and I presume elsewhere. The only thing that's not typical about this boot is color -- the totally-in color for all shoes and boots I've seen in both Croatia and Serbia is a deep rich chestnut brown suede. I'd be so bold as to say chestnut brown is the new black.

There's just one exception on the commonly worn flat boot front, and that's in Croatia's capital city Zagreb. Here's a snapshot I took of the park and buildings outside the main train station. If you squint at the giant billboard ad on that main building, you'll see a pair of female legs in cowboy boots. "Do they have a Texas fetish here in Zagreb?!" I asked my husband in astonishment. No, not at all. Turns out Zagreb is well known as a fashionable cowboy boot capital for Europe and the natives have made the boot their own, especially upscale, urban versions of it for women. And yes, after we saw this sign I did look around carefully for women actually wearing cowboy boots on the street, and spotted a live one. (Felt a bit like spotting a man in a kilt walking down the street in Edinburgh.)

However, most young women in Zagreb weren't in boots. As you can see from the pic below of three typical young women, most were in comfortable flat sporty shoes. The girl in the middle is wearing the ultimate in young women's foot fashion in Croatia right now -- an old fashioned-style high top sneaker. Converse high tops in colors other than black are really the most popular, but she appears to be wearing a nike version of the same style. I've never seen so many Converse hightops in one place in my life as I saw on young women and girl's feet throughout Croatia.

However, if you're a bit older and have wads (and wads and wads) of cash to burn, the streets of downtown Zagreb are lined with little, glossy shoe boutiques. Here's a typical one in a neighborhood akin to Boston's Newbury Street.

I saw far more of these little jewel-box-style shoe stores than I did jewelry stores. I guess shoes are a Croatian girl's best friend.

Or maybe it's a slavic or Balkan thing, because the streets of downtown Sombor also have far more shoe stores than practically anything else. Part of that is due to the fact that the Boreli shoe factory is located on the outskirts of town. So Boreli has at least four shopfronts downtown that I counted and possibly more. Unfortunately the shoe styles are ... stodgy. I asked a 20-something Serb girlfriend if she would buy shoes from Boreli, she said, "Well no, but my mother might."

Compare this snapshot of a typical Boreli shopfront to the Zagreb jewel-box above. It kind of sums up the differences in the two countries right currently. One is glitzy, fresh, but overpriced. The other is beat up, old fashioned, but rock solid at heart.

Lastly, if you are a middle aged or older person in either country, you're more likely to buy your shoes at the greenmarket than in a shop. Here's a snapshot of a Croatian granny trying on rubber boots at an outdoor stall in downtown Ogulin.

By the way, aside from rubber boots and hundreds of Puma and Nike knock-off sneakers (mainly in blue for men) Ogulin's stalls also featured a lot of office-style shoes. All were nearly flat, perhaps a half inch heel at most, mainly a wide version of princess style. And every single one had a rounded toe. I guess the merger of ballet slipper and formal pump is now universal.