Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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Like an old-fashioned 8mm movie rolling and flickering in an antique projector, the scene on a busy Kathmandu street unfolded frame by frame. I was on a bus bound for Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal for a three-day, two-night safari. The trip was supposed to take five hours but already we’d been sitting in backed up traffic for more than two hours and we still hadn’t made it out of the capital city.

Bored and seeking any distraction that would take my mind off the hard seat that was making my butt ache, I turned my attention to the street. In a gap between trucks moving just as slowly in the opposite direction I noticed a small butcher shop sandwiched between a lunch stand and a pharmacy. Behind the open-air wooden counter, a lady butcher swept her hand through the air in a futile attempt to shoo away swarms of flies dive-bombing the pale, plucked chickens lined up in a row on the countertop, sweating under a blistering sun.

Then traffic moved and blocked my view.

A minute later a truck inched forward, providing me a new window on the scene. A young boy led a goat by a short length of frayed rope. Just as he was about to tie the goat to a telephone pole in front of the shop, traffic again rolled across the stage. How strange, I mused. Someone tying up a goat on a busy retail street in the middle of Kathmandu.

With each opening between buses and trucks, the slaughter scene played out before my eyes

When traffic next inched forward the boy was running after his goat, which had cleverly escaped its tether. He snatched the rope, dragged the goat back to the pole, and tied it more securely.

Another bus, another wait, another scene revealed itself between vehicles.

The goat was lying on the ground, securely tied to the pole, with the boy sitting on top of it. Weird. Why would he do that? Maybe he’s trying to punish the goat or teach it who’s boss. My butt no longer hurt and I wasn’t thinking about the fact that my bus hadn’t moved an inch for more than an hour. I just wanted to know what would come next between boy and goat and waited impatiently Read More

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In a serene valley ringed by low mountains I strolled past fields of patchwork bronze and green where whole families had gathered to harvest the rice. Some bent low, cutting the golden stalks with small curved scythes, while others carefully spread severed stalks in the sun to dry overnight. On a cleared portion of the field, men and women swung previously dried sheaves high above their heads, slamming them down ferociously on plastic tarps to separate rice grains from the stalks. The resultant pile of amber grain was scooped up in flat round wicker baskets studded with tiny holes that allowed the wind to carry away dirt and leave the winnowed rice behind.

Harvesting rice by hand

Elsewhere, cleared fields were already being prepared for planting a new round of crops. In one, a stick-thin man wielding a short spade bent over double, digging furrows by hand. I raised my camera to snap a shot but he spotted me; obviously proud of his small patch of slate-colored earth, he snapped to attention, smiled, and waved before continuing his backbreaking work. Everywhere I looked, workers operated like a well-oiled machine, albeit one powered only by hand tools and brawn.

Preparing a field for a new potato crop with rustic hand tools

My guide for this two day trek explained that the dark green fields were planted in millet, a grain used to make hand-rolled flat bread and to brew Rakshi, a distilled liquor preferred by Sherpas. “The cleared fields will be planted with potatoes, which are a very important staple in Nepal,” he continued. “Potatoes can be boiled, fried, baked, cooked in curry, or added to soup; they can be served with vegetables, with meat, or with beans.” I chuckled to myself when I realized why his discourse sounded so familiar.

“Anyway, like I was sayin’, shrimp is the fruit of the sea. You can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it. Dey’s uh, shrimp-kabobs, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo. Pan fried, deep fried, stir-fried. There’s pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, coconut shrimp, pepper shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad, shrimp and potatoes, shrimp burger, shrimp sandwich.”

Halfway around the world, I was having a conversation straight out of the movie Forrest Gump.

We were headed for Nagarkot, a small village atop a mountain in the foothills of the Himalayas. I’d chosen this destination because it was supposedly a gentle three-hour trek along an improved dirt road. The knee I had injured in Mexico some months ago had refused to heal completely and each time I attempted Read More

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After a good night’s sleep I felt sufficiently recovered from the previous day’s long layover in Bangladesh to tackle the streets of Kathmandu, Nepal. Armed with a simplistic map that showed streets but no street names, I stepped out the front door of Madhuban Guest House and tuned left, intending to head for Durbar Square to see the UNESCO World Heritage palaces of the ancient kingdom.

The hotel owner said it was easy to find Durbar Square: “Go one block to the roundabout and continue straight; you can’t miss it.” But once there, I found three streets radiating from the roundabout, none of which went straight. I was puzzling over my pseudo-map while keeping one eye peeled for speeding motorbikes on the traffic-clogged road when a young Indian man approached and inquired, in a delightful British accent, if he could be of assistance.

“I’m not looking for a guide; I’m just wandering,” I replied by rote, used to this kind of approach from touts. In the din of blaring horns, chiming rickshaws, revved-up engines, chanting holy men and retailers hawking their goods, I headed off in a random direction, intending to shake my would-be guide.

“Oh, I am not a guide,” he insisted. “My name is Robbie and I just want to practice my English.”

I stopped in mid-stride and pierced him through with a look designed to intimidate. “I know this scam and I don’t want a guide.”

“No scam, ma’am. I really just want to practice my English.”

“You can show me around if you like, but I’m not paying you a cent.”

Side-by-side Buddhist and Hindu monasteries and a lovely Buddhist stupa in the Chhetrapati district of Kathmandu

A Sadhu (Hindu holy man) poses for a photo at a temple in the Chhetrapati district

Almost immediately he diverted down a dark, virtually hidden lane, indicating I should follow. A hundred feet later the cramped alley opened upon a spacious square anchored by Buddhist and Hindu monasteries. In the center of the square stood an exquisite Buddhist stupa with a gleaming white dome topped by a gilt spire, painted with Buddha eyes that gazed out in all four directions. Chanting Om Mani Padme Hum, I spun the prayer wheels surrounding Read More

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Penang, Malaysia was good for me. It was comfortable and familiar, as if I’d been there before, and the island welcomed me with open arms. Initial plans called for me to visit Kuala Lumpur and Malacca as well, but there was so much to see and do in Penang, I reverted to the slow travel mode that I prefer and stayed on Penang for two and a half weeks to explore this fascinating island in depth. It was a good decision, not only because I was able to rest and recover from my frustrating and exhausting travel experience in China, but also because I had a rare bout with sickness in Malaysia.

I rarely get sick when traveling; I’m one of those people who can drink the water and eat from street carts all over the world and never have the tiniest adverse reaction. But about midway through my stay in Penang, I woke up one morning with a splitting headache aching muscles that felt like I’d run a marathon the previous day. It was short term; by the following day I was back to normal and I didn’t think any more about it.

During week two I started looking for a flight to Kahtmandu, Nepal and was surprised to find that the cheap seats on both Nepal Airways and Thai Airlines were sold out through mid-October. Luckily, a local travel agent was able to find me a flight on GMG Airlines. The flight left from Kuala Lumpur at 6 a.m., which meant I’d have to take a night bus from Penang to KL, wait around in the KL airport for five hours, and then suffer through a long layover in Dhaka, Bangladesh, but I judged the savings to be worth the inconvenience.

Two days before the flight I again suffered a throbbing headache and muscle aches, this time accompanied by nausea, cold sweats, diarrhea, and itchy red bumps all over my body. It finally dawned on me that I’d eaten cockles both times I’d gotten sick. There was no doubt about it, I was having a severe allergic reaction to these tiny little mollusks.

I loaded up on Imodium, trying to stop the diarrhea, and hunkered down under the covers. Despite 90 degree temperatures, my teeth chattered and shivers wracked my body. By the end of day two I was still weak but decided to attempt travel, since my plane ticket was non-refundable and non-changeable. The night bus to Kuala Lumpur and a taxi got me to the airport at 3:30 a.m. but the ticket counter wasn’t yet open, so I hunted down an open McDonalds, sipped on tea, and popped another Imodium, just to be safe.

Long line of luggage carts loaded with linens going home with Nepalese who have been working in Malaysia

By 7 a.m. more than a hundred people were in line but the check in counter had not yet opened – not a good sign for an on-time 8 a.m. takeoff. Too weak to stand for any length of time, I plunked down on the floor among the waiting passengers, all young men who were rolling large metal carts containing stacks of comforters and bedspreads. Curiosity got the better of me; I began chatting with those who could speak English and learned they were all Nepalis, working on contract in Malaysia and headed home to celebrate the high Hindu holiday of Dashain. The bedspreads and comforters, apparently a rare and pricey commodity in Nepal, were being taken home as gifts.

The check-in counter finally opened at 8 a.m. with an announcement that the flight would be delayed until 10 a.m. One of the airline officials who was hovering in the background stepped up to the counter and told Read More

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I met Dr. Fauziah Ahmad in 2007, during my first ever round-the-world trip. We happened to be on the same city tour of Hanoi, Vietnam, and bonded when we had to fight to get a portion of our money back because the tour operator failed to deliver on promises to take us to see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. We later attended a performance at the Water Puppet Theater, followed by dinner, at the end of which we exchanged contact information and she invited me to visit her in Penang, should I ever make it to Malaysia.

Dr. Fauziah Ahmad and husband, Ahmad Shukri Yahaya

Over the years we’d exchanged a few emails, but hadn’t been in regular contact, so I held off contacting her until I knew for sure my arrival dates. Once I had arrived and recovered from my horrible experience in China, I emailed to let her know I was in Penang. Realizing it was short notice, I told her I’d understand if she didn’t have time to get together, but I underestimated the bonds of friendship made during travel.

The following week, Fauziah arrived at my guest house and whisked me away to her home for the night, where she set me up in her guest room and introduced me to her lovely family. But that was only the beginning; she had plans for me…

Sitting in on student's practice presentation to Dr. Fauziah Ahmad

Fauziah is a geotechnical engineer specializing in soil stability, landslides, and ground improvement, and a full professor at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (Malaysia University of Science). She had timed my visit to coincide with the Hari Raya Adilfitri, one of the high Muslim Read More

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Malaysia’s State of Penang is made up of a turtle-shaped island and a large strip of land on the mainland, joined by one of the longest bridges in the world, however when tourists refer to Penang (or Pulau Pinang in Malay), they almost always mean the island portion of the State. Featuring an exotic melange of old and new: the south side of Penang is home to the country’s second largest airport, an industrial area where electronics manufacturing reigns, and the world’s only Snake Temple; while on the northwestern tip, Penang National Park lures visitors with unspoiled natural beauty of Monkey Beach, waterfalls, jungle paths, and a meromictic lake.

Can’t view the above slide show of George Town, Penang, Malaysia? Click here.

In between, on the east coast, the capital of George Town melds a bustling port with one of the largest collection of intact pre-war buildings in the whole of SE Asia, earning it the designation of UNESCO World Heritage City in 2008. The British laid out the city in a grid system designed to segregate the races and to some degree, these invisible boundaries still exist, with neighborhoods such as Little India and Chinatown. I found the historic center of George Town to be compact and easily seen on foot; surprising me every few feet with another 200-year old temple, church, mosque, clan house, market, historic government house, or bazaar. Read More