Friday, December 25, 2015

Tiger's Nest Monastery

On out last full day in Paro, we hiked up to Tiger's Nest Monastery (Taktsang). This spot was where the Buddha first arrived in Bhutan on a flying tiger. It is a holy place for Tibetan Buddhists and the site of many a pilgrimage. A monastery built into the side of a cliff, it has become quite a tourist attraction as well. And the hike has evidently been recently improved with the installment of railings on the thousand stairs. Evidently there had been some 'incidents' with clumsy people and overzealous picture takers. In fact, we had to swear to Kunzang that we would be careful on our hike and she called several times to remind us of our solemn vow.

The hike is about three hours up but if you are weak-kneed or weak-willed you can take a burro up the first half. Interestingly, on the way up we ran into Michael Rutland, an Oxford professor who was the 4th King's science tutor and is now honorary consul and famed television personality (a sort of Bhutanese Bill Nye). He told us that this was about his nth trip up to the monastery including one trip with Prince Charles who hiked well although his bodyguards suffered.

We followed him for a bit and then continued on, taking photos and not falling off cliffs all the while:

The monastery was originally built in the 1600s but has been rebuilt several times. Buddhists, in fact, feel that rebirth and rebuilding are necessary as structures are temporal yet the ideas that they represent are immortal. Upon arrival, all visitors must remove their hats and shoes and store their backpacks and cameras. We explored the different temples and took a few moments to meditate before heading back down from 10,000ft. Apparently many people have spiritually transformative moments in the monastery (including this National Geographic correspondent). I'm glad I wasn't aware of this before going because I would have been disappointed by my lack of enlightenment.

Perhaps next time.

Bhutan - Forts, forts, and more forts

Bhutan in their quest for high impact tourism has hit upon a winner with -- the royal post office. I'm serious! They let you put your face on your very own stamp! So of course we couldn't resist. I will have you know that my postcard made it to the United States before Nara's card made it to South Korea. I win!

Then we headed out to Paro to explore some forts. First we stopped to check out the handiwork of the iron bridge builder. Thangtong Gyalpo also known as Chakzampa was a Buddhist master, yogi, physician, blacksmith, architect, and a pioneering civil engineer who was said to have built 58 iron chain suspension bridges around Tibet and Bhutan. (Some sources say 108 bridges which is an auspicious number in Buddhism.)

The original bridge was occupied by some little old lady tourists who weren't making the best time so we took the newer, less scary bridge over to check out the red chillies drying in the sun. Every few minutes, a shriveled old man would lean out of his window and yell at his cows in the field below. Each time it happened we jumped. The man let us see the small temple at the site and use his bathroom but only grudgingly.

Then we moved on to Paro Dzong

And the ruins of the old Paro Dzong (which was of course lit spectacularly)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Happy Birthday Jigme Singye Wangchuck, 4th Dragon King of Bhutan!

And now the moment we've all been waiting for, the reason we came to Bhutan in the first place...the 4th King's 60th birthday!

The King's birthday was celebrated in the National Stadium with Bhutanese people returning from all over the world to be a part of it. (In fact, when I couldn't tell which gate my plane would be leaving from in Nepal I just followed a woman in Tibetan-Bhutanese dress.) But due to the crowds and excitement, we had to wake up before dawn to guarantee seats. We had been promised traditional Bhutanese dress to wear but when that fell through Nara wore her traditional Korean dress and Papa Lee and I wore traditional American dress. We couldn't have cell phones or cameras on us and the lines to enter the stadium were separated by gender. We quickly learned the Bhutanese word for "keep moving" as the ladies' line sprinted up the street. Nara and I quickly flagged down a policeman to clarify that our guide and her father were in the other line and were told to wait at the gate. Hearkening back to the pre-cell phone days, we just crossed our fingers that we would meet up.

Bhutan is very big on civil service organizations and keeping order. The army, police, national guard, friends of the police, and scouts were all out in force directing traffic and controlling crowds. Fireworks had been prohibited and the nightly concerts and dance demonstrations ended promptly at ten o'clock each night. I did not see a single drunk and disorderly Bhutanese person in my time there.

So we did meet up and being good travelers we had a cushion, blanket, and plenty of snacks for a day of celebration. We began with a good two hours of people watching where each sector of civil society (the veterans, the ministers, the judges, the parliament, the armed forces, etc color-coded by role) were seated in separate sections. Eventually the Kings and their entourages arrived. First each sector of society had an opportunity to present themselves to Papa King and then Baby King made a speech, the highlight of which, judging by the gasps and cheers from the crowd, was that the Queen was pregnant with a boy due in February. (Way to keep a secret!)  The other highlight was when Papa King's horse spooked every time the crowd clapped loudly -- setting off a vicious cycle of events.

After the speeches, conducted entirely in Dzongha (Bhutanese), each state (or ethnic group, I'm not entirely sure) presented a traditional dance as the Kings walked around the stadium greeting people. At one point, Phuntsho pointed out that Papa King had given his watch to someone. No joke. He seems a very generous ruler: the crowds were provided with free water and Coke and packaged cupcakes. Then the warriors danced a slow motion type of dervish and there was a brief interlude where in honor of Papa King's favorite sport, there was a short boxing match in the style of American Gladiator. The boxers were balancing on high platforms and hitting each other with pillows. I just want you to know that I tried very hard to find a good video of this sport and it seems to have been a figment of my imagination. It could have been sunstroke as we were prohibited from wearing hats in the Kings' presence. But the warrior dance was real (video from a different event):

After a few dances Papa Lee decided to go back to the hotel to take a nap. Phuntsho was worried that Papa Lee wouldn't be able to find his way back but Nara convinced him that as a world traveler (40 countries!) he'd be fine. So we watched him walk off in the wrong direction.

After a few more dances, we picked up Papa Lee and went out for burgers. I wanted to split a yak burger with Nara because when will we ever get to eat yak burger. I noticed that Nara was pronouncing yak a little funny (y'know she's Korean) but was still surprised when we were served an egg sandwich. Post once-in-a-lifetime egg sandwich, we wandered around town buying postcards.

Phuntsho has a great sense of timing. He not only took us to monuments of cultural importance or to viewing spots for sweeping landscapes but he also timed it so that the lighting was ideal for atmosphere. (Shameless plug: Travel Bhutan with Kuentshok Tours!) So after the King's shindig, he drove us to the royal palace and government buildings in the hopes that we would see it as it lit up for the night. Unfortunately we were a little too early so had to make do with taking photos of the rose garden in the dusk and trying to convince the guards to turn the lights on a smidge earlier then planned. They demurred but did pose in a photo with us.

I was enchanted by the kissing fish.

Technically, the fish are part of Buddhist ideology and represent the auspiciousness of all living beings in a state of fearlessness, without danger of drowning in the ocean of sufferings, and migrating from place to place freely and spontaneously, just as fish swim freely without fear through water. But I'm still gonna go with kissing fish.

Not content to leave well enough alone, we went to the handicrafts market to kill some time before returning to the palace to see it all lit up. Despite the quality of this particular photo, it was an enchanting view.

To conclude the day we went out with Kunzang one last time and over Ema Datsi and red rice shared stories about how we met Nara. Evidently, one day when Kunzang was at grad school she worried aloud what to do with her wet umbrella in the student lounge. Nara, leaping to conclusions, snapped "No one's going to steal your stupid umbrella." Kunzang turned to our mutual friend Sumana and said that she thought Nara was rude. Specifically she said "I don't like your friend." Sumana, in her calm Nepali goodness said that Nara only insulted people she really liked. At this point in Kunzang's recounting of the story Nara piped up "Tell her how we met, Ellen." You see, I met Nara in my first week of orientation at grad school when I was puzzling over how to calculate a standard deviation by hand. Nara turned to me and said, "Y'know you'd be smart if you weren't so distractable." While this is true, I harbored uncharitable thoughts toward her until Sumana, ever the rescuer, reintroduced us a few weeks later.

Now Nara and I insult each other (and takins) with glee.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Bhutan - don't tease the animals

On the day that the monks migrated, we had a light day in Thimpu. Because "we're ladies" we went to the nunnery above the capital city. I had mentioned several times the temptation to run away to a Buddhist nunnery and I was pleased by what I saw: the nuns were surrounded by the smell of lemongrass as they chanted and played hand drums and a cat made itself comfortable in the sunniest nun lap. In Flushing, I always see nuns in Starbucks so I think that all of these things combine for a peaceful existence. I'll just have to work on my ability (or lack thereof) to sit still.

Then we moseyed on to an art 'emporium.' There we learned that the artists are divided into category according to skill. The younger/less talented artist draw the pieces, the more experienced artists fill in the backgrounds and the masters paint the faces and gold details. Each of the paints are made from Himalayan rocks and the canvas is cotton treated with animal fat. That combined with five barefooted young men all in one room made for a pretty stinky studio. Papa Lee bought some art but I resisted because I still haven't hung up any of my paintings from Nicaragua.

Our next stop was an art school. The country of Bhutan has 13 arts: metal-working, silver-smithing, gold-smithing, painting, basketry, weaving, woodworking, sewing, drawing, sculpture, dancing, singing, and I can't remember the last one. (Man! I was so close!) The school was closed for the King's birthday but one lone student approached us trying to sell some of his painting. We obliged but his works seemed a bit blurry so we took an active role in teaching him how to be used to disappointment and rejection.

Our final stop before lunch was to pay a visit to the national animal of Bhutan: the mighty takin, The takin was described to us an animal with the face of a goat and the butt of a cow. Wikipedia describes it as "a bee-stung moose." According to legend, it was created by the Divine Madman (that same guy who painted phalluses all over the country). There were signs all over asking us not to tease the animals which of course tempted me to taunt them mercilessly. "You stupid takin! You're ugly! No one will ever love you!" Nara thought this was hilarious but Phuntsho was a little shocked. Just gives you a little glimpse into the respective Asian senses of humor...but then Nara's always down for a good insult as I'll explain later.
Yo momma so goatlike...

No matter. We then headed back into Thimpu proper to have lunch with Phuntsho's wife Kunzang (our friend from grad school) and her brother who was visiting from Colorado. That afternoon, we went to a food festival where each of the 20 districts had a booth where they prepared and sold their specialties. At lunch, there was some discussion on whether these foods would be prepared according to stringent Western hygienic practices. Nara and I decided to risk it. and somehow fell into choosing the food that the other had to eat.  I made her eat an apple, walnut tart and she made me eat a thick buckwheat noodle covered in chili paste. And just because we hadn't eaten enough, we then met Kunzang and her family for a home-cooked dinner of ema datsi (chilies with cheese), buckwheat pancakes, red rice, spinach, lentils and well-filled glasses of wine.

Ema datsi is considered Bhutan's national dish and we ate a lot of it. Check out this video of a woman in traditional dress cooking. Please ignore her terrifying fingernails.

My notes from the evening are a mixture of the suitably esoteric:
  • in the land reform of Bhutan the maximum land holding is set at 25 acres
  • concept of 'government' versus 'state' especially regarding environmental commissions that have authority to penalize
  • Bhutan will be organic by 2020
  • gang = mountain
  • chu = river
  • chobs = cheers
  • gardinche(la) = thank you
and general observations:
  • old people marathon
  • the country smells of betel nut
To clarify "old people marathon" because I'm sure that's the topic you have most interest in - when we left the hotel in the morning we spied a bunch of geriatrics running through town with numbered bibs. When I asked what was going on I was told that there was a marathon. Bhutan, however, does not hold with the standard distance for the marathon as this one was about 5K.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Bhutan - Not all rainbows and butterflies

Bhutan is an interesting country, full of contradictions:
  • It is landlocked, sandwiched between India and China but has decided to extend trade and military relations only with India due primarily to China's annexing of Tibet. In fact, Bhutan does not even have formal diplomatic relations with China. India, on the other hand, has military bases in Bhutan. 
  • As a primarily Buddhist nation, it does not have any meat production or slaughter facilities but it imports all meat from India
  • It transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy in 2008. (There are only 6 absolute monarchies left in the world including, oddly, The Vatican.) 
  • The fourth King has four wives! The fifth king and all those after can only have one though.
  • The fourth King abdicated his throne in his fifties to give power to his 30 year old son. It is now written into the constitution that the King must abdicate at 60. (I asked if it was possible for the line of succession to go to a woman and was told yes but haven't had confirmation.)
  • Television and internet are new to Bhutan as well: in 1999 the ban was lifted. 
  • It measures its success as a nation in terms of happiness
  • Bhutan was the first country to ban the sale of tobacco. (Can that be true Wikipedia? Most of my Bhutanese friends smoke!) 
And the monks migrate! Early in the morning all the roads were closed so that the monks could safely walk from their summer home in Thimpu to their winter home in Punakha. This had been announced on the radio as well as the restrictions that would be in place for the King's birthday celebration; the government would shut off all cellular and wifi service for the morning and no cameras would be allowed. Although this was a special occasion some other standard practices seemed overkill; for example the security protocols in the airport were more stringent than some countries that are actually targets for terrorism.

So while our trip focused on the natural beauty of Bhutan, the love and admiration felt for the Kings, and the deep traditionalism of the country, I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention the dark side of Bhutan. As a small, landlocked nation surrounded by two of the largest Asian powers Bhutan has, in fact, held itself together with this very emphasis on tradition. For example, every house in Bhutan must be traditionally built and the national costume is compulsory at school and in government buildings. That is to say the national costume of ethnic Bhutanese - not the thousands of ethnic Nepalis or Tibetans living in the country.

My first interaction with Bhutan as an entity was with the thousands of Bhutanese refugees living in Vermont. That's right, Vermont. In the 1800s, Nepalis were welcomed to Bhutan as farm laborers. They settled there long-term and were given citizenship. When a census was conducted in the late 1980s, tens of thousands of Nepali speakers (in fact about 30% of the population) were "discovered" to be living in the southern part of the country, they were de-naturalized because they couldn't produce land ownership documentation prior to 1958, event though they had lived there for generations. For those who remained, they found themselves to be further disenfranchised and ostracized as they were forced to wear traditional Bhutanese costume and elementary instruction in Nepali was discontinued. Finally, in the early 1990s, the government forced approximately 90,000 Nepali-speaking persons, now classified as illegal immigrants, to leave the country.

Lest we think this is ancient history, the US State Department reports that as of this September, "approximately 34,000 Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees remained in two refugee camps in Nepal administered by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)." There are still ethnic-Nepalis living in Bhutan but they are often classified as stateless which means that due to heavy tourism restrictions in the country, they can't travel within Bhutan without permits. Tibetans too face institutionalized barriers to participating in government and becoming citizens.

Also, in an effort to preserve the spiritual heritage of Bhutan, The Religious Organizations Act of 2007 prohibited religious proselytizing and the construction of non-Buddhist centers of worship without backing from a registered religious groups. While I am not a fan of missionaries, these restrictions present larger issues; registration requires Bhutanese citizenship which has translated into a complete lack of new public worship facilities for the Hindu yet stateless ethnic Nepalis and the Indian road crews who have recently arrived.

I'm not saying that Bhutan is a terrible repressive place or that it doesn't have fantastic environmental commitments and policies (which  I'll try to write about later), In fact, I encourage you to read about the United States' own human rights issues. I just thought it was necessary to talk about this. Papa Lee actually mentioned on our trip that given the bad things that he had heard about Bhutan on this issue, he would concentrate his trip on seeing the rainbows and butterflies. And for the rest of my posts I will too. And there are plenty.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Bhutan - I die

The beauty of globalization is that there is wifi in surprising places. So when you are struck ill at three in the morning you can facebook your sister, update her on how many times exactly you've used the toilet in any manner in the past four hours and ask her to send help. Luckily (?) I was scheduled to go on a sunrise tour so I knew I would be found prone on the bathroom tile in a mere two hours.

After passing my 20 minute test (when I can make it 20 minutes without using the bathroom) I peeled myself off the floor, put some clothing on, and staggered down to the hotel lobby where my friends made me a deal: if after an hour of travel I thought I would truly die we could turn back. Well, I made it about 40 minutes in the car before I had to clamor for us to pull over. But this was just another opportunity to test my friendship with Nara. And she passed with flying colors: rubbing my back, handing me a water bottle, and having tissues at the ready. If our roles were reversed I would have just left her on the side of the road, especially because due to our little delay we missed the official sunrise at the temple at the top of the DochuLa mountain pass.

So forgive me if the details of the day are a little sparse. I hung on admirably but that's about all I could manage. Even taking photos was too much.

After a very slow breakfast (my fault), we moseyed up to the temple where the monks had created beautiful floral mosaics using colored rice around the courtyard. We weren't allowed in the temple itself because the Queen Mother had just arrived to dedicate a butter lamp in honor of her husband's birthday. This is unfortunate because Papa Lee, who was trying to get as far away as possible from pukey me, recounted later that it was the most beautiful temple he had ever been in.

After I managed to keep down some banana and rice we rolled on to the Royal Botanical Garden where we saw a crapload of different rhododendron species and I impressed the guide with my knowledge of lycopodia. Then we drove another few hours to the Punakha Dzong.

Back in the old old days, there were several Tibetan Buddhist kingdoms, each of which built a fortress doubling as administrative center and monastery. They are generally build in defensive positions such as on mountain ridges or, as in this case, at the confluence of two rivers. The Punakha Dzong is the second oldest in what is now Bhutan and was the capital of the country until 1955.

Interestingly, all new construction in Bhutan (including their lovely airport) must maintain the stylistic elements of the dzongs such as the white-wash, painted decorations, and colorful roof.

While at the dzong it was revealed just how inept birders we are. I pointed out a bird to Nara and asked her what kind it was. She answered, "It's a pigeon." When I said that it was definitely not a pigeon she replied "Well, it's some other bird then." Thank you Yale Forestry for bestowing us with such brilliant powers of deduction.

Because the dzong is still used as administrative offices for district government we could only go inside the temple, outside of which a British scholar-type was expounding to a tour group on how Buddhism is so different than Christianity. Reductionist but vaguely interesting. Again, I'm sorry I can't recall details.

Next we decided, misguidedly, to delay lunch and hike 20 minutes to a fertility temple (Chimi Lhakhang). Phuntsho, our guide verified with Nara that it wouldn't be awkward for her or her father which in itself was awkward. Y'see this temple was built after the site was blessed by the Divine Madman, a great Buddhist master who emphasized the more earthy pleasures as a means of achieving enlightenment. In fact, he espoused the use of the phallus symbol to ward off the evil eye and bring blessings. So each of us were blessed with a large wooden penis. (My friends later said that the blessing only works if you stay in the temple overnight, wink, wink, nudge, nudge.)

The town of Lubesa, in which the monastery is located, was celebrating for the king's birthday with women performing traditional dances while the men were participating in a darts contest. The large, weighted darts were thrown at a distance of about 30 meters at a target about the size of a typical dartboard. We watched for a bit until I was struck by the fear that I might lose an eye from one of the errant darts. I will say, though,, that even the errant darts were surprisingly accurate.

Post lunch, where I worried several restaurant staff by only eating rice and bananas (again), we headed back to Thimpu for a dinner with our Bhutanese grad schoolmates. Despite sheer exhaustion and having puked one more time right before meeting, it was totally worth it to see everyone and chat about all manner of issues: invasive species, service projects that involve schoolchildren burning marijuana plants, the up-and-coming potato chip industry, Frozen, the country's sole helicopter, Donald Trump, and, of course, Bhutan's finest phalluses. (Phalli?) I'd be glad to expand on any of these conversational topic upon request.

The prevailing wisdom when sick in the USA is to eat lightly, stick to a bland diet, and drink plenty of fluids. So by the end of the dinner I thought I would lose it if one more person told me "eat more", "drink some brandy", "try yogurt", or "rice and toast aren't a sufficient meal." Nara tried to come to my rescue with the exhortation to just treat me "like an American." but that only prompted one well-meaning person to suggest a hamburger restaurant that foreigners love. Ah well, visited 20 countries and puked in 6 of them. And the company for this round was fabulous: from my sister Mary (in spririt) to Nara to the whole Bhutan crew. Chobs! (with some ginger ale.)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Land of the Thunder Dragon

The trip to Bhutan was at first the ridiculous brainchild of my grad school bestie, Nara. In December or so she called me and said, "How about we go to Bhutan for the King's birthday." and I said "Yeah, sure." and then suddenly in April I had a visa and a tentative itinerary.

Although the visa itself only costs $40, the government requires that all visitors book with an established tour company that, in turn, enforces a $250 per day package. No before you say "That's highway robbery!" it includes a minimum of 3 star accommodations, food, guide and transportation as well as a $65 per day royalty that goes towards the government of Bhutan's free education, free healthcare and poverty alleviation programs. So it's merely a slight mugging. The idea is that tourism will be limited to people with the means to make the trip in keeping with Bhutan's "High Value, Low Impact Tourism.” This naturally translates into a lot of rich adventurers and/or retirees who have saved for this. Nara and I got away without paying the package cost as guests of our Bhutanese friends (who happen to work for government agencies). This is the only way I could have afforded the trip and I count myself lucky to be one of the only poor non-Chinese tourists under the age of 40 even though I didn't appreciate the magnitude of that until I arrived.

After waking up ridiculously early (thank you jetlag), taking a ridiculously cold shower, and packing up my belongings (now somewhat lighter without my gifts for Ambi's family) I hopped over to the airport for my flight to Bhutan. I arrived so early that the check-in desk wasn't even open yet. And I completely forgot to request a window seat for our flight through the Himalayas! But don't worry folks, arriving so early basically guaranteed me the bulkhead window seat. One full hour of mountain views!

The Bhutan airport in Paro is sparkly clean and pretty but not necessarily equipped to handle those tourists who need to withdraw or change too much money. Travel tip: American dollars are not accepted to pay for your visa and ATMs are pretty much nonexistent throughout the country. I used the opportunity in the airport to get some money and it involved a woman with an actual dial-up connection and about 20 minutes. My friend Phuntsho of the spectacular Kuentshok Tours met me at the airport and drove me the hour to Thimpu to meet up with his wife Kunzang and my bestie Nara and her father Papa Lee. Our first order of business after all the hugging was to eat Bhutanese momos and compare their quality with Nepali ones. Momos, by the way, are boiled dumplings and Bhutanese momos feature cheeeese. However my joy was lessened when Nara and I noticed that my apple juice was served in a still-wet glass which meant that I would ingest some tap water. Nara looked at me and said "Oooh. You're gonna die."

We spent the rest of the afternoon driving around, visiting the largest sitting Buddha that overlooks the city, and making our rounds around the Memorial Chorten before I died that night.

Nepal - Kathmandu Durbar Square

Someone once told me that if I loved Bolivia, I would definitely love Nepal. And there are undoubtedly many similar characteristics and transferable skills: both are very poor, mountainous nations where everyone wears sandals no matter how cold it is, hats no matter how warm it is, and enjoy the subtleties of being a quietly pushy people.

The flight over was relatively unremarkable. I sat between two older women named Cindy Lou and Mary Jo who decided that we should all go to the bathroom at the same time. Mary Jo in the window seat would look over at us every couple of hours and say, "Are we ready ladies?" and we would all make a pilgrimage to the back of the plane. Somehow I ordered a lacto-ovo vegetarian meal so I got served my boring rice and boiled vegetables before everyone else. I did note, however, that evidently vegetarians don't eat dessert. Despite no dessert and frequent movement, my feet still swelled so much that my boots didn't fit and my kneecaps felt like they would pop off. I retain water like a pro.

I landed in Nepal, after approximately 11 bathroom runs, at 10PM. I had heard stories about the craziness of the airport but had a delightfully prosaic time... because I already had a visa photo, the application all filled out, and $25 in cash. I only witnessed two luggage cart struggles and my pre-arranged taxi was waiting for me. That was actually all thanks to my dear sweet friend Ambika who called the hotel several times to hassle them for a taxi unbenownst to me. Arriving at night is never fun and it would have been a nightmare to negotiate a taxi in a strange city with a fuel shortage after 24 hours of travel. So thank you Ambi!

The taxi drive was through one-car-wide streets full of drunken tourists, prostitutes, and Nepalis weaving around on motor bikes and I had no idea if I was being kidnapped and driven to the shadiest neighborhood ever or if this was normal for a Friday night in Kathmandu. (It is, in the Thamel district.) I think you have figured it out that I survived the ordeal.

Dhaka topi, the national hat for men
Colored powder for holy days
My first day in Nepal I decided to just wander around but honestly, I was petrified that I wouldn't be able to find my hotel again in the warren of extremely narrow streets with no signs or real concrete landmarks. I set upon the tactic of trying to walk in as straight a line as possible. In Kathmandu it seems that every street is a market street and that every temple doubles as a market stall.

Even temples double as market stalls

Luckily Durbar Square fell within my straight line trajectory. Durbar means something like "royal court" and there is one in each district of Nepal. After paying my fee (inflated for foreigners of course) a young tour guide named Mr. D. glommed on to me after showing me his notebook with many glowing recommendations for his services from other harried foreign tourists. Since I was travelling alone and Durbar Square has no interpretative signage at all I decided to splurge on a tour. My notes are unfortunately sparse as I had trouble keeping all the temples and various Hindu deities and Buddhist saints straight. In fact my only note is "Shorea robusta" the species of tree out of which the Kasthamandap temple was carved.

Taleju temple, largest in the Square and built in the 16th century

A temple inside a ficus tree, the species under which the Buddha was enlightened

Jagannath Temple. Each roof pillar has a different erotic carving. To prompt the monks to reproduce? To prevent the virgin lightening goddess from coming close? Simply art? Who knows?

The wise man (or woman) who can read all the languages on this stone will come into riches.

Kathmandu's Durbar Square is home to a Kumari, or living goddess inhabited by Taleju. In Nepal the Kumari is selected from the Buddhist Newari caste between the ages of three and puberty. She has to go through several feats of strength and bravery before becoming goddess and then is worshiped by Hindus until she sustains a large blood loss through either injury or beginning menstruation. If one asks nicely, she will come to the window of her temple and bless tourists...and we got to see her! Followed of course by a series of questions on her living conditions, access to her family, and right to education because this seems like a strange and isolating existence to this Western woman. I am pleased to report that the Kumari has recently been allowed tutors although it is still said to be bad luck to marry a former goddess-incarnate.

Image result for buddhist mandala
They really are lovely.
After glimpsing the Kumari, we ducked into a shop that sold traditional thangkas. A thangka is a Tibetan Buddhist painting on cotton, or silk appliqué, usually depicting a Buddhist deity, scene, or mandala. I had no intention of buying one. The young woman in the store explained to me that the paintings in her store were done by monks, and therefore my purchase would support a monastery instead of unscrupulous artists. She brought up several different paintings with different levels of professionalism (evidently) and showed me how the gold flake sparked in the light. While she remained calm and collected as I agreed that they were all lovely and yet refused to buy one I became genuinely afraid that I would never be able to escape the shop. She showed me how they could be wrapped for travel and informed me that they never faded. She even brought out her own non-monk semi-professional paintings. She offered me a discount and asked me to name my own price. But I really didn't want a thangka! I'm not sure how offensive I was, but I finally stood up, said thank you, and left the building.

To atone for my thangka offense, knowing that my guide expected a tip, and not really wanting to eat alone, I took Mr D out for momos and coke. He wrote some Nepali phrases in my book, let me borrow his phone to call my friend, and told me that normally people gave him $20 or $30 for tours. Whaaat!? I gave him $10 which a Nepali later told me was still too much and went on my merry way.  This shakedown was the first of many such interactions.

That night, my friend Ambi met me at my hotel and took me back to her house, a slight adventure involving a crowded bus and crossing several streets. This may not seem very adventurous to you but then maybe you've never been to Kathmandu. We hung out with her kidlet and then had a typical dinner of rice with lentils, spinach, pickled carrots with a side of millet beer which seemed misguided. The kind of liquid that will kill you.

I was sad to miss Ambi's husband who had been in line all day for gas for the family motorbike. Nepal is going through a fuel crisis as all trucks from India are being stopped on the border. I'll write more on that later but it was shocking to think that the volume of vehicles on Kathmandu's roads (and the resultant air pollution) is normally double or triple what it was while I visited. Dipak did finally get home to give me a ride back to the hotel. On the way, we were stopped at a police checkpoint. Those are the moments in every tourists' life where they wonder what course of action will get them out of a situation with the police with the smallest bribe paid, "Should I pull my hood up further and keep my shades on and pretend I'm Nepali? Or should I flash my blonde hair and bat my baby blue eyes?" My friends later told me that it was a sobriety checkpoint so we had nothing to worry about but that the latter option would have worked well. Well now I know: be Western at police checkpoints, don't go into thangka shops if you don't want to buy one, momos are not an adequate tip, and stick to straight lines wherever possible.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Staycation(ish) in NYC

I have two things that I do upon starting long trips. The first is wearing lucky socks. I don't necessarily have a pair of socks that is the lucky pair; any colorful pair will do. That is not to say that I don't have my favorites. The purple pair with cows jumping over the moon (a gift from niece and nephew), the blue pair with pandas (borrowed from a friend in Bolivia and never returned), and any pair from the pack of striped yellow socks that my Mom bought me when I got a job in Nicaragua rank pretty highly.

I'm not sure how this started but I would guess that my mother initiated the tradition. In my family themed socks are appropriate gifts for almost every holiday: Christmas, Easter, Halloween, St. Patrick's Day - I even inherited a few pairs when my gramma died. That said, wearing of these socks for the purpose of luck is only appropriate for exams and flights. I suppose I'll need a pair of lucky boot socks for my trip to Nepal.

The other superstition I hold is listening to the song Long Way Around by the Dixie Chicks. This applies particularly to bus trips and stems from my Peace Corps days. the lyrics fit my life so well at the time except instead of  a Winnebago I was in a chicken bus. I don't journey by bus very often anymore - a few trips to NYC each year but I don't regard those as having tourism ends - mostly just family events where I will sit in my parents' house wearing pjs and bingeing on pizza, Chinese food, bagels, and Entenmanns devils food crumb donuts. (Buy me some?)

However, On this last trip to "the city" for a work reunion I made sure to take some time to explore. I also thought it'd be appropriate to get out because none of the usual suspects were available to host me and I wasn't sure that Joe, an old work friend with a swanky new apartment, would welcome my pj-lounging ways. Generally, I head straight for The Strand upon stepping off the bus but this time I planned a circuit of Bluestockings Books, the Tenement Museum, and the E Street Cinema -- wait, that's in DC.

I was completely unfamiliar with the Tenement Museum's tour system and was surprised to learn that each themed tour cost $25 ($20 if you still use an unexpired and undated student ID like I do. I paid a pretty penny for that ID and I have no shame using it post-graduation. It's also easier that trying to convince people that my self-description as "life-long learner" should count for a discount as I tried once in Seville.) Also, as a lone wolf I couldn't just go on any tour I wanted but one that welcomed lonely desperate singletons. To clarify, I am neither lonely nor desperate but that was the vibe that was projected onto me as I bought my ticket --" Oh you poor thing. All alone? I suppose we could we squeeze you in."

I realize that this account is not strictly chronologically correct; the first thing I did upon entering the museum was find the bathroom (and then use it). It is safe to assume, in fact, that my first move upon arrival anywhere is to go to the bathroom. So now that the timeline is settled, I was put on a tour called "Shop Life" that started at 4:30pm. I had two and a half hours to kill.

First I watched the museum's comprehensive welcome video which featured several heavily NY-accented researchers talking about the history of the Lower East Side and how it transitioned from German to Jewish to Puerto Rican -- all with their own challenges and white uptown rescuers. The museum, by the way, is in an old tenement (strictly speaking, a multi-family building) that had been abandoned when sanitary improvements became too onerous for the owners (Fire proofing! The horror!) and they evicted everyone and lived on the proceeds of the first-floor shops -- which I would get to see in two hours.

So I moseyed over to Bluestockings Books which I am ashamed to say I had never visited in my three years living in the city. Perhaps I am not as feminist, environmentalist, and rabble-rousey as everyone thinks I am. I'm also not a big book buyer; that habit would bankrupt me. But I was looking for a gift for my host, the best read Parkie on the planet. Unfortunately I think his reading tastes might be even less feminist, environmentalist, and rabble-rousey so I just bought an uninspiring chocolate chip cookie and headed back to the museum...which has a fabulous bookstore! History! Culture! City planning! (Hint, hint Christmas is coming.) So I picked up a copy of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs took on NY's master builder and transformed the American city by Anthony Flint. The book is for people who have powered through Robert Caro's The Power Broker about Robert Moses and Jane Jacob's The Death and Life of American Cities and are looking for a lightweight synthesis of the two. Or for someone who doesn't have the time, inclination, or mental fortitude to read those behemoths. (Joe is the former, and I am the latter having started the Power Broker twice now.)

Book in hand, I jumped on the 4pm tour "Hard Times" which if you were paying attention was totally not the tour I was assigned to - oops. Hard Times was a tour of the first floor apartments which were set up to show what the building looked like when it was abandoned, a German-Jewish family's in the late 1870s, and an Italian family;s in the late 1920s. I don't want to spoil the tour for you but three things were of note: 1) The apartments were found to have ~30 layers of wallpaper. Rather than a deep clean, the landlords would just paint or paper over between tenants. 2) Several people bandied about the same statistic that the population density of the Lower East Side in the 1870s was greater than that of Calcutta. Being a statistics nerd and a stickler for accuracy I asked at the first opportunity if that referred to the population of Calcutta then or now. That was evidently a stumper. 3) One family, in their move toward Americanization named their children Josephine and John -- the same names as my gramma and her brother.

After the tour, I walked by the theater to find that nothing was showing until after dinner so I headed north, oddly running into a former coworker in Union Square. I would hum It's a Small World After All but I know how much an earworm that is. Then I received a text inviting me to the Queens' Park's softball team's victory party at the Elk's Lodge in Elmhurst. This being just quirky enough of an invitation for me to accept. I can't tell you too much about the evening of course because I was sworn to secrecy in a masked ceremony but I did get really good pizza and clarify my life plan to marry rich.

The next morning I woke up ridiculously early and so left the apartment ridiculously early and so arrived at the Staten Island ferry terminal ridiculously early -- where I ate a pretzel with cheese for breakfast. So when Chelsea texted me to see which ferry we were aiming for I had to admit that I had been sitting in the terminal all morning. We were heading to SI for a MillionTreesNYC staff reunion. Yay trees!After some difficulty finding our shuttle and enduring some stomach-wrenching driving we arrived to Greenbelt Nature Center where, after I peed of course, I signed in to be met with "Oh you're Lenni! Our password is still 'weheartlenni'"." At first I was deeply flattered but then I remembered that that particular password was my idea and the programmers ran with the joke. Anyway, it was a gorgeous warm day of tromping through the woods and planting trees. The only low points were whne I spectacularly failed at the farmer's hanky and wound up with booger everywhere. Aren't you glad you asked?

Post-planting and picnic lunch, I hitched a ride back to the city with Kat and Susan to catch up with people I find so hard-working and inspiring -- and to avoid getting carsick again. (Most of my notes from the day are about projects that I need to read more about and people I should contact.)  Since we wound up parking near the City Museum -- and a little birdie had told me that Parkies get in for free -- I decided to try my luck. Although I enjoyed the Stanley Tucci-narrated movie about the city and the displays on tenements I totally thought the museum would be more fun!

So I headed back to J's place to lounge around in my pjs and watch the Mets game while he and his girlfriend went to a party. The next morning we went to Brooklyn Bagel which I only mention because it checked off one more item on my food checklist -- and I ran into a friend from grad school who now lives in Boston. (Iiiiits' a small woooorld...)

Now generally when I head into New York, I contact everyone I know there to see who has the best plans and then I hang with them. This time around Jana totally won with her idea to go to the Brooklyn Banya (Russian baths) but alas the timing didn't work out so instead I went to the Hall of Science to hang out with my friend Erin who was there coordinating events for National Chemistry Day. I hung out a bit, got offered a job as a scent chemist, explored a bit, ate some lunch with her family, and took her kidlet to the hall of mirrors before heading back to my bus. Big weekend!