Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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It was the 6th of Karthik in the year 2067 by the Nepali calendar but despite the future-sounding date, I had been thrust back in time. I sat cross-legged on a carpet rolled out over the chilled concrete porch of Aama Gurung’s mountain home, sipping tea sweetened with milk from the buffalo, gazing out over the massive Annapurna Himalayas, still shrouded in pre-dawn darkness.

Aama – literally mother in Nepali – shares her house with Nani, an older woman who has no remaining family. As usual, seventy-something Aama and the somewhat younger Nani had begun their chores before sunrise. Nani tossed fresh hay into the buffalo paddock, then dug through day-old fodder with her bare hands, bringing up mounds of fresh dung for use as fertilizer in the garden. Aama swept the porch and courtyard with a  long whisk broom fashioned from sticks and straw, while Prakash, a 24-year old grandson stoked the morning cook fire in an outdoor clay oven. Sitting, enjoying my tea, I felt pampered and useless but they refused my repeated offers to help, explaining that in their culture, “Guest is god.”

Life in the tiny mountain village of Puma is beautiful and simple, but it is not easy. Just getting to the village was exhausting. The previous day I took a bus from Pokhara to the end of the line in Besisahar, where I was met by Prakash, my guide and translator for the duration. My host, Giri Gurung of Nepal Tourism Travels, had explained we would take a 4-wheel drive jeep from Besisahar up to Puma. I foolishly assumed this would be a private jeep and so was surprised when Prakash led me to a street corner where dozens of people were waiting for public transport jeeps. As the only means of access to these remote communities other than walking, seats were in demand; many people had been waiting since the previous day. Prakash harangued each driver that pulled up, trying in vain to get us seats. Three hours later I was still sitting with my back against the rattling tin wall of a shop with my feet stretched out into the dusty dirt street, having long since given up hope that we would reach Puma that day. Prakash, however, was not so easily discouraged. He continued to beg for a seat, offering to pay more than the 110 Rupee fare ($1.50 U.S.), and finally convinced one jeep owner to kick other passengers off to make room for us when he upped his offer to 250 Rupees.

Overloaded 4WD jeeps carry passengers from Besisahar into the high mountain villages

I climbed into the rear and plunked down on one of two facing wooden benches running down the sides of the extended cab, balancing my pack on my lap rather than relegating it to the rooftop and chancing damage to my electronic equipment. A long-legged man sitting across from me roughly shoved my legs apart and thrust one of his knees between mine, while the woman to my left poked her shoulder firmly into my breast. With my hiking boots taking up more than an equitable share of the precious little floor space that was not mounded with sacks of grain and boxes of cooking oil, we started uphill on a rock track gutted with twin trenches that masqueraded as a road.

Portion of the rough road to Puma

Within minutes we were high above Besisahar, jouncing through 18” deep ruts and skirting giant boulders. Around a long curve the city disappeared, replaced with vistas of lush gold rice fields ready for harvest and newly-planted fields of grass-green millet, terraced down mountains rising in every direction. Half an hour into the trip, suffering from bruised knees and a sore throat brought on by cold evening temperatures, the jeep ground to a crunching halt, sunk to mid-wheel in ruts made muddy by recent rains. We climbed out while the driver expertly extracted the vehicle and then pretzeled ourselves back inside for more torture. One hour later I almost kissed Prakash when he told the driver to stop, turned to me and announced, “We are here.” Gingerly, I shook my half-asleep leg, handed down my backpack, and eased my aching hip and knee down to the road, wondering why I put myself through these things. Read More

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Our hand-hewn dugout canoe bumped against a muddy bank that materialized out of the soft fog hanging over the Rapti River in Chitwan National Park. Regretting that we had to leave the ethereal, misty river so soon, I gingerly walked the length of the narrow wooden boat, trying not to upset its delicate balance and scrambled up the embankment for a pre-trek briefing. Earlier, our guide had warned us to be on the lookout for crocodiles and poisonous snakes, which occasionally jump into the boats. Even so, the canoe had felt relatively safe, but now we were standing in thigh-high jungle vegetation dotted by an occasional small tree.

Canoes in front of us disappeared into the thick mists

Canoes in front of us disappeared into the thick mists

Paddling down the river in a dugout canoe

Paddling down the river in a dugout canoe

As a veteran of a nine-day safari through Tanzania’s National Parks and a day tour in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, I am no stranger to safaris. However in Africa we were not allowed out of the car, with one exception; in Arusha National Park I strolled through herds of warthogs, water buffalo and giraffe, accompanied by an automatic rifle-toting park ranger. Here, the only weapon allowed our guide was a long stick.

Guide is armed with nothing more than a long stick

“Chitwan National Park is home to sloth bears, tigers, elephants, and the endangered one-horned rhinoceros, so we must be prepared before trekking,” he explained. “If we encounter a sloth bear, you must run and climb a tree; a small tree is OK. If we have problems with rhinos you must run as fast as you can and climb a larger tree. Do you know what to do if we come upon a tiger?”

“Run?” one of us suggested meekly.

“No. You must back up very slowly. Then you turn and run.”

“And what about an elephant?” one of us inquired.

“You cannot run from an elephant and climbing a tree will not help. If an elephant charges, you die.” And with this final comment he turned and headed off into the jungle. Read More

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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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