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

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.