Where Is Robert?

Indian women dancing at a Wedding

Based on the emails I have received, I understand the following:  Some of you are worried about me, some of you are curious about me and my non-traditional ways, and some of you simply want something to read while at work. To all, I apologize for not keeping up with the posting as I had hoped; there is a simple reason however:  I am spending most of my time creating new stories verses writing about the past ones.  That is not to say that the past is not important, and I will be getting all the good stuff posted…but not today or even likely in the coming days.  Why?  Well, I am in Udiapur, India for another 5 days and I am supper busy during those days.  My day starts with a walk to Yoga, (I buy a liter of water from the same little girl each morning).  I spend 90 minutes at Yoga and then walk to my favorite cafe where I inevitably meet interesting people (this morning it was an accomplished Yogi and fascinating man from Delhi).  Breakfast is rarely over before 11.  Then back to my $6 room.  Mid day I have a bit of time, but as is typical, today we found ourselves in an Indian home looking at miniature paintings, enjoying great company, and figuring out if we have enough time to get our hands or feet painted with Henna (not enough time today…but later for sure).  In the afternoon I have another 90 minutes of Yoga.  For the last several days, Yoga has been followed by Indian Weddings that go late into the night.  Starting tonight, Yoga will be followed by 2.5 hours of Reiki classes. Tomorrow we have to try and squeeze in a Shiva festival after Reiki class….NO I am not complaining – I am living.

Women at another Wedding

But there is good stuff coming in my writing.  Or At least I think it is good.  The experiences certainly were, the writing simply is what it is.   Topics include:

  • I personally met the Dalai Lama and it was beyond transforming – he is the most amazing human I have ever had the privilege of holding hands with.
  • I delivered 100kg of rice to Muslim families from the back of a bicycle rickshaw – this was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done.
  • I saw poverty in Kolcata that will break your heart; and yet I now greet beggars and those less fortunate with a smile and Namaste rather than looking away
  • I saw the erotic art of Khajuraho and realized why yoga is important – but more importantly realized that the erotic sculptures were only a small percentage of the temples that reflect the entire human experience.
  • I saw the greatest temple of love, the Taj Mahal, with a most wonderful friend and person.
  • I have gone to more weddings in India then I have been to in 20 years in the U.S.

And so much more, that may or may not ever be writen; it certainly will not be forgot.

I greatly appreciate the support for me to keep writing:   It is not something I ever thought I would do or ever enjoy.  And it is most certainly nothing I thought others may enjoy.  I am in your debt, I enjoy writing, and I enjoy that some of you enjoy it.

Boys at yet another Wedding (last night)


I met a guy

After eying a beautiful Royal Enfield (CIRCA 1950) motorcycle,  I struck up a conversation with the current owner.  The bike is being restored and shipped to Europe in a few weeks to a lucky bastard who is going to be riding it around the EU; I am so jealous, but figured with the gear shift being on the right /wrong (opposite of  all modern motorcycles) side, I would surely kill myself even if I did have the good fortune of owning one.

Monks chanting at sunrise

The same guy had previously helped Sue and Dave book their Himalaya trek….the one that never happened due to Sue’s serious Indian weight loss program (eat, throw up, have diarrhea….repeat for days). So casually I explain that I am trying to get to Boda Gaya and it is proving difficult, beyond difficult actually, as the trains are all fully booked. As he shows me the original name plate that is going back on the bikes fuel tank he says “I know the guy who can get you a train ticket”.  The process sounds highly suspect (something about railroad employees buying tickets, reselling them, and changing the names on the ticket) but I was currently out of options and have come to realize that sometimes, particularly in India , you just have to have trust and let the “guy” help you.

Without such and attitude, you will most certainly be going home earlier than planned. I  have met a lot of travelers who have said: “Nothing works here, we hate India, we are going home”.  Me on the other hand, well I am trying, with limited success, to develop an approach that gives up some of my perceived control.  I am thus starting to figure out that the “Nothing works” is simply according to our expectations, but at the end of the day, things do get done…..or at least somewhat done.  That afternoon Dave and I run into the “cake lady”, who as a westerner, is making Dargeeling her home while selling cakes that taste like cakes.  We mention the odd plan to her and she simply says: “Oh the guy with the cool bike is a good guy, if he said he can get you a ticket he can, no need to understand how”.

The next morning we check out of hotel, walk until we find a ride in a jeep going down the hill from Dargeeling before the latest in a series of protest strike (hotel manager and husband are also in jeep trying to get out of town also as the strike may disrupt things in Dargeeling through the new years).  After some tough negotiating, and some help from our hotel manager we convince the jeep driver that the front and back seats do not need to be crammed full, and we pay for a little extra comfort. The back…well they put 7 or 8 people back there. We drive through Gorkhaland independent state demonstrations and somehow avoid the road blocks; aparently there is an agreement with the strikers and the jeep drivers regarding when they can pass, but it is completely foreign to us as to the process.  At one point we see a few rupees change hand as we continue out of the Himalaya foothills.


With no hotel booking we walk to a hotel that looks decent (pretty nice actually) in the non-tourist town of Silugiri,  After checking in, prepaying, showing all forms of ID, we are given rooms; Odd.  Dave and I set out to try and find the guy who can get me a train ticket; We continue to ask directions over the honking horns and bustle of and Indian city at night. Dave ultimately spots a hotel down a side street with a name similar (but not the same) as the name we were told to look for.  “Yes, we know the guy you are looking for but he is gone; I whine, they tell us to sit down and they call the guy.  In India, you are always told to sit down and you never really know what that means, but we simply trusted that something would happen and we wait. Soon we see a rather old, rather haggard looking guy come in and we are surprised the hotel lets him into the lobby. He sits down and starts talking loudly on a cell phone.  At this point Dave and I are about to call the whole process  a bust,  and then this guy hands me the phone and says: “For you”.  It is the Enfield motorcycle guy on the phone telling me that the other guy is my guy and he was simply verifying who I was.  Out pops a train ticket with my name on it. Dave and I look at it and again opt to trust that it is indeed a ticket to Patna (near Gaya, and where I need to get to). As requested,  I give the guy $4 for his effort and walk away repeating Sue’s favorite saying regarding how to explain things in India: “But of course it is”.

The place of Enlightenment

We walk back to hotel in the mayhem of the Indian city and have great dinner (even though it was nothing close to what we ordered as often is the case) and we laughed: “But of course it is”. In the morning I walk to tuk tuk (auto rickshaws) station but opt to avoid what looks like certain suicide and  instead hire a cab to train station.  At the station while I settle in a for a long wait,  I fortunately meet a guy that explains that the train is not late as described on the status board and points out that my train is actually leaving NOW; We run down the platform, find my car and jump the train as it begins to role.  Completely rattled, intimidated, and a bit ticked off,  I find my berth as I clutch my belongings to my chest. I am instantly befriended by Indian newlyweds who adopt me for this part of my journey and share their dinner with me and tell me how happy they are with their arranged marriage (they are totally sincere, obviously happy, and committed to spending the rest of their lives together; divorce is a very very rare thing in India).  And forget the tourist restaurants or even the great street food,  if you want fantastic India food, enjoy the food a happy family packs for long train voyages. Later in the evening I am convinced that the puffed rice, with mustard sauce and chopped onions that is being sold by a vendor at one stop is safe to eat, so I take my newspaper cone that holds the rice and marvel at the rich spicy taste.  As I go to pay, I realize my Indian friends have all ready done so and they refuse my money. Soon a rock in the mix breaks yet another tooth.  I do not have the heart to tell my friends, and discretely spit the rock and sliver of tooth out; I enjoy the rest of the rice and lively conversation with wonderful people.

Indian Buddhist Monk

I Arrive in Patna after an all night train and try to buy ticket to Gaya but the station is closed.  I meet another guy who understands “Gaya” as I try to explain that I need to get a ticket.  He shakes his head in that way I do not understand the meaning, points to a train that is just leaving and we again run down the platform and jump onto the train. This is a local train – I sit on a bench with 3 other guys, while some very fascinating  and very very poor people (I am now in the poorest part of the country) sit around us.  At each stop the train gets more and more full until the is car packed with humans.  No one speaks English and I am clearly quite an anomaly for this train. I try and figure out if I am going the right directions and break out my little guide book map and use compass on watch; yes, I hink I am ok- lets see looks like maybe a hundred or a hundred and fifty kilometers that should be about 2- 3 hours, relax. Three hours later the guys indicates I should get off the train which I never did get a ticket for. We shake hands and I walk into a sea of tuk tuks and negotiate a price like a weathered veteran. I make it to Boda Gaya.  Travel – check.

I immediately set out to seek lodging amongst a sea of gold and maroon (thousands of monks and pilgrims are all ready here and estimates indicate that 50,000 people we be here in the coming days).  I go to a half dozen places with no luck and begin to think I may have finally done it – I am truly homeless.  Then I meet a guy who tells me to take a seat as he knows a guy; I meet another guy who comes at the request of the first guy and he takes me away to meet another guy who takes me to a hotel that I had all ready checked with – there are apparently no rooms in town, but remarkably, miraculously, or because I said I would pay a premium someone just cancelled and they offer me a nice room for way to much money.  I negotiate a still inflated but fair price given the crowds that I am seeing develop outside, and secure a room for the 10 days that correspond to His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet being here and doing a teaching.  Lodging – check.

I have no idea how to secure a ticket for the teaching but opt to relax in knowing I am in the right town on the right day.  I go to find a cup of much deserved coffee; not great, but black and taste something like coffee in a continent of tea drinkers. “Good morning” says an older Lama who asks if he may join me”. “Certainly” I say.  We have a nice visit and I ask if he may know how I acquire a ticket for the teaching.  “Wait here, enjoy another coffee, I will be back later”.  After a tine he returns and we depart together. Every few minutes we have to stop, however, as people keep approaching my new friend; the process is always the same, they clasp their hands, bow, say a greeting I do not understand and then shake both hands warmly.  At one such stop, the Lama simply says “Excuse me for a moment, this is His Holiness’s personal secretary on Tibet and I need to speak with him for a moment”. We make it to the registration area and I am helped throughout the process by this kind Lama. Over lunch I ask: “So, who are you“, I get a humble response that includes a name, and like the Dalai Lama an assertion that “ I am just a monk“.  I knew otherwise and Google confirmed;  I have just spent the day with the 5th incarnation of Chusang Rimpoche who oversees the Monastery that bears his name in Kathmandu, Nepal, studied directly under His Holiness, and is a senior monastic in the Tibetan community.  At one point Lama Rimpoche says “So you are not a Buddhist” to which I reply, “No but I am interested, have been doing some practice, and very much relate to Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism with its focus on the mind and analytical thinking”.  “I know” says the Lama, “I think you may have traveled this path before”.  His words are said in a manor that penetrate deeply and for once in my life I am left speechless. “It is best you are not a Buddhist, labels not important, practice important”.  Ticket – check….who know what else.

By comparison to my limited Indian experience, Dargeeling is quite  peaceful.  The demographics here are more similar to Nepal and the populous is comprised of many Nepali and Tibetans, along with the fairer skin toned Indians. Thus in Dargeeling you see much more of what we would consider an Asian influence on peoples faces; or as Choezom’s sister said when I said I was going to Dargeeling:  “You see more chinky eye their”.  This was not a racial slur,  it was simply a way to describe how people in different regions look differently.  There is an enormous amount of prejudice in India but that is based more on the Caste system.

India will make you marvel about our vanity regarding skin color.  We more fair skinned people dream of having higher melanin and thus darker skin.  We use to work on our tans until we realized it was killing us, some drink carotene to the point of looking like carrots, and some paint their bodies to make their natural color look darker.  Not in India -ust the opposite and every other commercial on television is for a skin lightening product – “Up to three shades lighter” is the typical claim.  I think Michael Jackson must have used the super strength stuff. In India this apparent obsession regarding how we look goes far beyond just physical appearance and as skin tone can demonstrate your place in the society. the upper Caste are typically more fair while the lower Caste are often very dark.  This is partly due to the different labor categories that each cast holds; laborers are low Caste and work outside in the sun, while high Caste hold merchant and other more leisurely post.  This system, while not as all inclusive as in decades past, is still the dominant social structure throughout the sub-continent, and is going to continue to be so for at least a few more generations.

Tiger Hill ans tar

Dave and Sue had not gotten a good view of the Himalaya so we hired a car to take us to the base of Tiger Hill, and although foggy we decided to make the walk up to the top regardless.  Upon summiting we were granted a tad bit of a view, but given my Nepal trekking experience it was indeed marginal.  And to add insult to the fog, at the top of the hill, the road crew was boiling tar and we were forced to cover our noises and mouths as the wind swirled the black smoke around the lookout point. But the kids who were walking up the hill had a great time because this road crew actually had a compactor and rides were being given to everyone; I talked to both the OSHA representative and the Union Steward both and they said this was fine 🙂 It was Christmas Eve after all.

Monkey enjoying the offerings at Hindu shrine

The three of us enjoyed a nice dinner together and called it an early evening.  While working hard not to, be I was indeed in a bit of a melancholy mood as I retired to nice but freezing cold room…. alone. At sunset the temperature drop precipitously and given the rooms are poorly insulated with single pane windows the room was an ice box without the ice.  Rather the windows were dripping with condensation and the blankets themselves felt heavy with moisture.  The blankets are hard to describe….like some kind of heavy cotton fill sewn inside a sheet.  They weighed a short ton, were about 4 inches thick – and lumpy.  I had three of them on top of me – any more and I would have been crushed to death, and they still lacked any real semblance of insulation The fantastic hotel manager secured a mini electric heater to put by our beds.  At one point, I had on all my clothes including my down jacket – and Himalaya hat,  was smothered in blankets, and held the electric heater to my nose and ear to thaw them out. I wonder what it is like here in the real winter which is still a few months away?  And, why the hell did I send my down sleeping bag home from Nepal?  India is warm!  That is like saying California is warm…..say that from the top of Mt Whitney in the winter. I watched bad action hero movies (first TV in three months) and shivered for hours.  It is Christmas 2009.

Observation hill: Hindu, Buddhist again sharing space

Sue got very sick on Christmas day so after the first day of sightseeing together  Dave and I were on our own as Sue opted to throw-up for 4 days.  We did very little actually as I was becoming less interested in seeing things and more interested in interacting with people and simply hanging out.  The days went quickly, we enjoyed some good meals together while each day Dave and Sue evaluated if Sue was up  for a couple of day trek into the Himalayas. Each day Sue answered after breakfast by throwing up everything she ate. When it became obviously that a trek was out the question we all began to make independent plans for leaving Dargeeling.  But before we did we were all able to go for a small outing to the Happy Valley tea plantation where we tasted and explored the fascinating world of the worlds most famous teas. I am a coffee guy, but this is damn good tea; like Folgers to Petes coffee…..comparing Happy Valley to Lipton is well no comparison.

Clock tower

Throughout the Dargeeling area you see signs supporting an independent Gorkhaland. The inhabitants of these foothills and surrounding mountains want, very much, to be an independent state of India. The argument is similar to elsewhere in the world – we are represented by Bengali’s from Kolcata……we are Gorkha, we demand to represent ourselves. These lands have changed political boundaries so many times that I got lost just trying to follow the chronology. The British were the latest architected and crafted some elaborate compromises that seemed to have largely served no-one but themselves. So, I can say this – it is obvious that the vast majority of the people want to represent themselves as a separate state, they are organized and getting more so. And they control a cash crop that is worth a fortune to the state of Bengal…this is going to be a conflict not easily resolved.

Kids getting a ride on compactor

Studded tires and chains are apparently unknown in Dargeeling.  Their alternative snow traction strategy is ingenious however. The roads or Dargeeling are small, narrow, and very steep, so as they put down a heavy layer of tar they imbed golf ball sized sharp angular rocks into the surface.  A bit hard to walk on, but it must work. Like squat toilets, we do not have a monopoly on truth or doing things the ‘right” way. But we typically think we do.

Gorkhaland, India

The British were here: Christian Church of Dargeeling

Like tribal people everywhere, westerners are drawn together at Indian train stations like  Hindus to the Ganges. Thus, while Dargeeling is not a popular destination (cold) this time of the year, I met five others travelers trying to figure out what platform the train may be leaving from. We quickly formed a partnership, spit up and checked each platform and agreed we would share a private jeep to Dargeeling from the train station. Well all but one person agreed.  A new to India solo women said she preferred to travel alone as she was on a personal pilgrimage and would make her own arraignments. I informed the group that I was assured we could also catch an express train once we got to the NJP station.  “Never heard of that was the collective response”. When I was told this by the hotel manager in Varanasi I had my doubts as to the validity; could not confirm in the guide book or on line. But he insisted it was easy.  What he meant was it was an easy lie for him to tell me so I would not worry about how to get from the train station to Dargeeling, this is unfortunately a rather common occurrence: Tell em something even if you do not know or if it is incorrect; there is no such train. There is the historic steam train, that only leaves in the morning (we arrived in the evening) and it is far from express given it takes 8 hours to climb to the hill station. I was disappointed in Christopher for taking this approach as I had very much liked his little affordable hotel, found his other information to be valid, and like the guy. But I have told lots of travelers that the hotel is a bargain but unfortunately you can not trust he manager; wonder what that has cost him?  Not being vindictive here, it is simply a matter that I choose to do business with honest people; particularly important for travelers in a challenging travel environment. And by doing so, the good ones will also make more money and other will not – seems appropriate and helpful to me.

Municipal building; notices the Swastika -symbol of good luck in Hinduism and prevalent throughout Asia with similar meaning.  Mirror image stolen and inappropriately used by Hitler

Someone in our group, Sue I think, finally found and English speaker and got us to the correct platform; which was again not the platform listed on the board.   I had fortunately booked the right compartment this time as well and was in relative  luxury in a 3ac sleeper (complete with a sheet for my bunk and a blanket…wow).  Three bunks on each side, but separated in a cubicle sort of way.  Much cleaner, and the car had it own bathroom that was a far more manageable dirty….but not filthy. And I had some travel mates so was less concerned about my gear (it was still locked) as I slept.  In the morning I was due for a panic and so one materialized as I realized that either the lock on my gear had failed or more likely I had inadvertently (rather easy to do) changed the combo the night before. “Shit, we were arriving at our station in about two hour and my bag is locked securely in a Pack Safe stainless steel mesh bag“. Fortunately, because I had been with others I opted (something I never do) to not fully synched down the metal mesh bag and so after 20 minutes I was able to free my pack with only one small tear  “.Ok, relax, you have your pack”. Now the lock, cable, and mesh cover were securely attached to the bulkhead of my bunk.  I sat and looked at it for a long time, tried dozen of combinations and finally said “oh well”. Then Dave, and Electrical engineer from Alaska who had obviously been thinking about it for awhile looked at it for an equally long time. We ultimately determined that there was a “weak link” in the system  – actually an aluminum compression connector that made a loop in the cable.  If we could cut that we could get the bag and lock back even though it would still be locked.  Go McGiver. Dave had a silly small multi tool with an even sillier small file and off to work we went. “Hey, what else do we have to do”. After 20 minutes we had a small grove, and after 40 minutes we had a space big enough to get a knife blade into; after an hour and some bruised and bloodied fingers we were free. The guy at the coffee shop in Dargeeling cut the lock with nothing more than a hack saw blade (no saw) in about 5 minutes….so much for case hardened.

Economics is apparently not a widely taken subject mater by jeep drivers.  Outside the train station we started negotiating with an entire group of drivers who wanted to take us to Darjeeling (about 3 hours by jeep).  Each driver was asking 100rp (2 dollars) per person and they would take 15 people in their jeep.  Now I, along with others had experienced that nightmare before so we wanted to hire a jeep to take only the 5 of us.  “No problem, we take you 5 for 2000rp”.  Humm, 15 times 100 is 1500 but if we do not want to be packed like small fish in a can, we have to pay a 500rp premium, we have to wait for 9 others who want a ride, it will take more petrol….. this is odd.  We each tried to rationalize with the drivers and offered to pay a small but not 500rp premium but had no luck.  Ultimately we regrouped, the solo female traveling came running up saying she REALLY wanted to go with us now as she realized she was about to be stuck at the train station for the night, and we decided to pay the 2000rp and base on decision on our perception on the best driver, with the best jeep.  We choose wisely, and after a steady climb beyond the valley and into the steep tea country of Dargeeling and Gorkhaland we arrived safely. Humm, maybe they did take econ….we paid the premium and I am certain they new we would.

Three in our group had previous reservations and three of us did not.  So we followed the couple with reservations and figured we might all stay at the same hotel. Then as is often the case, our friends discovered that their reservations were good until someone else showed up and took there room.  While the hostilities began to rise, Sue, Dave, and I said our good byes and sent out into the cold night to find lodging.  In the process we met the solo women again who said her hotel appeared to be permanently closed even though she also had a pre booking. We did not have to go far as the hotel next door was happy to give us a room for a reasonable rate. When we told them we may stay for upwards or a week, the rate got even better.  The manager was fantastic in providing lots of blankets, and helpful honest service. Sue went directly to bed, and I happily bought Dave dinner and a tall Kingfisher (national beer of India) as a celebratory meal after a tough day of travel and a successful pack recovery.

Sarnath, India

Historic Sarnath

After a few days of the Hindu holy city of Varanasi I was ready for the  more (maybe perceived)  subdued nature of Buddhism.  So Jack, a personal chief from rural Texas, overland adventure, and practitioner or many great religions including a very devoted period as a practicing Muslim, an English chap who travels much more then he works, and I hired an auto rickshaw (three wheels, two rear – one front,  vehicle built around a small motor with motorcycle type steering and a semi enclosed seat in back) and headed to my third major pilgrimage site of Sarnath. A car was recommended as the trip was nearly and hour, but going 40kmh at full throttle while marveling at the sights with friends was a blast. We nicked one cow, but the holy animal, our vehicle, and all aboard were intact; we had a good laugh with our driver as to the nature of our collective bad Karma if we had actually killed the animal that gives rise to the incarnations of nearly 33 million gods in Hinduism (this is one reasons cows are holy, they are the birth vehicle for gods).  Jack and I sat in the back and he told me about his plan to drive his custom built rig from Texan to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of Argentina, south America. “You are kidding my right, that is the same trip I have been dreaming about for years but I hoped to do it by motorcycle”. After comparing notes on a lot of other plans – like sailing around the world, we realized we were not alone on this planet with some crazy ass ideas regarding how to live life. Later I reviewed Jack’s web site and discovered he was beyond my dreaming about stage and was actively building this wild self contained vehicle, and making plans to point south and depress the pedal; Good luck Jack, I will see you on this crazy road again.

Historic  Stupa

Upon arrival in Sarnath we were swarmed by children begging, men wanting to serve as our guide, and all types of trinket sells people.  Straight to ticket off, and inside gate – safe.  Ok, outside is certainly not unsafe, it is however draining, often intimidating, and frequently  frustrating.  Sarnath is the sight where the last (there were others before, and there will be others in the future) Buddha (Sidhartha) taught his first teaching after achieving enlightenment in Boda Gaya. The site mostly consist of an excavated archeological site that once housed a great stupa in honor of the enlightened one. Like, Lumbini, and Kushinagar, Sarnath also supports monasteries from many Buddhist countries. Given the time constraints of my companions we kept our visit brief, but spinning the now familiar prayer wheels at the Tibetan monastery while repeating the mantra felt comforting amongst the humanity that is India.

Dogs and pups hanging out

Being largely anti-religious (angrily so, some would argue…correctly) I have been drawn to Buddhism since my 2006 thru – hike of the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail.  After hiking 2600 miles and debating the nature of god or the lack there of with myself and my companions, I became intrigued with something my friend Nate (Sunny) had said: “You know go-big (my trail name), I have never once heard you say anything inconsistent with my limited knowledge of Buddhism, I think you should check it out when you get home”. I did not give it much more thought after that until I unexpectedly got divorced and found myself once again completely lost and rudderless.  Ultimately, I shook the poor poor pitiful me bullshit and found myself at a Buddhist retreat near Santa Cruz.  The rituals were stupid, the vegetarian food mediocre, the women uninterested in, the room shabby, but the teaching of the straight talking Australian Nun (Robina Courtin) to be spot on with my fundamental beliefs and experiences. As typical, I left the retreat with new found focus, perspective and interest; I bought books, I downloaded teachings….and I did not do a damn bit of reading or listening or any type of follow-up.  Then I end up in Nepal using the Himalayas as the reason for the trip; “Funny, sure are a lot of Buddhist in those mountains, and I sure like their Monasteries?”  Now, without planning, I find myself being drawn to Boda Gaya (the place Buddha, awakened into enlightenment).

For Chryss

So the seed that was planted years ago was apparently starting to ripen. A few weeks back I had also heard that His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet was going to be giving a teaching in Boda Gaya, and the timing could actually work for my schedule.  “Humm, how is it that I have been to three of the most sacred sights of Buddhism, I am now eager to see the fourth, and the Dalai Lama is going to be there, wouldn‘t that be something”. Not that checking off sites has ever been all that important to me, or that  I am rarely if ever excited about seeing an unknown famous person – but these sites and this man (his smiling photo is everywhere ) have given this part of my trip some particular meaning and seeing it through is becoming important to me. Estimates suggested that 40-50 thousand people would be in Boda Gaya for the teaching and I was told that without a hotel booking (impossible to get now), I was running a fools gamble regarding finding lodging. So as is common practice now, I  rubbed my bracelet that Sara had given me and said to myself: “We are going, and it will either work our or it will not”.

Sleeping, not dead

The teachings are 12 days from now, and while Varanasi is alive with fascination and  frustration, I am ready to move on. But where to go?  It will be Christmas. A quick look at the map gave me my instant answer; Christmas should be cold so why not head back into the foothills of the Himalaya and go the famous former English hill station of Dargeeling, India.  Besides no-one goes to Dargeeling this time of the year.  I have a plan,

On my last day in Varanasi, Jack and I walked across the pontoon and bamboo bridge to the historic fort and remarkable but frightening weapon museum. We shake our heads in disbelieve as we noticed that the recently placed huge pillars for the new bridge over the Ganges are leaning.  Not leaning a little bit, but Tower of Pisa leaning; and know this was not per the design…that was obvious. As I stood their looking on while still shaking my head, I spontaneously said “Shit, these guys have a lot of nuclear weapons, and this contractor can’t build a bridge over the Ganges, I sure hope the nuke contractor got the off switch wired correctly”.  Instead of walking back we hired two very lucky fisherman to take us back across the river. Lucky because we nor they had change and thus they made more in an hour than they likely make in a week. The boat was river worthy but reeked of Ganges sludge that was all over the boat.  The first mate organized lines,  sorted the fish that should not be consumed by any man or beast given the guaranteed high levels or contaminants, and rinsed the fresh (not) water mussels that would be sold at market.
Varanasi, India
Cow in street garbage

On the river Ganges, the sacred city of Varanasi is sensory overload. “Is that micro shop’s (maybe 3X4X5ft) shopkeeper really sitting in the lotus position while doing business by reaching over the cow lying in the alley; while a monkey swings from the wires above carrying undergarments, as a women chases the monkey with a broom while screaming in Hindi; while we eat samosa’s  (deep fried dumplings) directly from the boiling hot oil of a coal fire built atop an old paint can“? Yes, but of course he is! “Is that guy really peeing against the wall while that women washes her clothes and self in the Ganges; while that boy cleans chai tea cups in the same water as they are pushing the cremated remains (upwards of a hundred a day) bodies into: while the holy men smoke hash pipes with their nearly naked bodies are covered in bright orange and white pant and fully dusted in fire ash ”. Yes, but of course he is. “Are those guys really directing those trained pigeons with flags and walling noises while those boys try and cut each others kites atop the same roof that the guy is making buffalo crap fuel as the women sleeps on the more dried dung”? Yes, but of course they are. “Are those Muslim guys really cutting themselves and bleeding across the chest as they reenact the murder of one of their martyrs while others beat haunting drums and wail as we look down at the mayhem from the rooftop”?  Yes, but of course they are.  “Is that guy really feeding those hundreds of squealing frantic monkeys while more hundreds of Hindu wipe off the excess orange blessing paint onto the walls of the shrine so as it drips a brightly colored goo over the shrine“? Yes, but of course he is. Welcome.

Gulls and the Ganges

A 150rp ($3) room, all you can eat street food for under a dollar, new friends from around the world, sunrise and sunset boat rides on the filthy but somehow magical river; Varanasi will charm you or frustrate you – you decide.  Upon arriving at the train station 4 of found ourselves at the curb together, and we quickly made introductions, secured a rickshaw, and agreed to check out a guest house that one of the group had heard about….fast friends, and we spend the next 4 days traveling together; fantastic.

Hindu Holy man (Sadhu0

I needed to get a Hepatitis B booster and the guide book suggested that Varanasi had a very good western hospital. I walked across town along with the cows, water buffalo, taxis, auto rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, thousands of people, hundreds of dogs, and dozens of monkeys until I found a good landmark in the local University. Then I began asking for directions.  The key to asking direction is to NEVER point or say is the Hospital “this way”.  The reason being is that people do not want you to loose face and thus if you act like you know where you are going they will often confirm your direction even if it is completely wrong.  So, keep your hands at your side and simply ask “do you know where the hospital is”.  The second key is do not go very far before you repeat this process.  After you ask a half dozen times a pattern will develop and you will get a since if you are on the right path. Regardless, keep asking and soon enough someone you ask will point up and laugh because you will be at your destination.

Vegetables, motorcycles, cow, and people

Upon finding and reflecting on the hospital, I am thinking the author maybe has never actually been in the west and seen a western hospital.  Regardless, the security guard recognized I was totally confused by the mass of human suffering in the waiting room and took me to see a doctor whom I showed my international vaccination card, and explained what I needed.  “No problem, you have the vaccine, I give you shot”. Humm, just so happens I am not carrying Hepatitis B vaccine in my backpack.  I explained this to rather large staff that was now interested in why this westerner was in their hospital, and they sent me to the pharmacy to secure the vaccine – that is different.  At the pharmacy, I explained again what I needed, showed them my shot history while they actually looked up the drug on a computer of all things….but no, we do not have any of that drug; in a country where Hepatitis is quite prevalent  “What is up with that Doc”? He simply shrugged, gave a slight head bobble and said: “We do not immunize in India, thus no drug”.

Man selling vegtables

Cows in alley

Ghats at sunrise

Bathing in the Ganges

Hindu women with Sadhu

For Janna

At sunset

Welcome to India

Gorakhpur and Kushinagar, India
December 14, 2009
Welcome to India

The border crossing into India was chaotic and I was completely uncertain as to the requirements regarding checking out of Nepal and checking into the sub continent.  So I followed the mass of people and ultimately ended up at a jeep stand where rides were being offered to Gorakhpur – my next destination.  “Humm, seems like I missed something”.  I doubled back and found a lien-to that housed Indian Immigration and they reviewed my passport and visa and started to sign me into their country until I mistakenly inquired about signing out of Nepal. After lots of pointing, head bobbing (an Indian phenomenon that is neither a yes or no nod, rather it is a bobble from left to right and means any number of things depending on the situation). I shrugged my shoulders, pointed to my ears indicating I had no idea what they were saying, and simply followed the mass of people the other way; figured out that the only people who have to check in and check out are non-Indians and non-Nepali, everyone else just does what ever they want. Once on the Nepali side, again, I found a micro sign that pointed to the even more micro office, and after a silly amount of scrutiny given that I had just walked from Nepal into India and back to Nepal,  I was checked out of Nepal.  I walked once again back across border and after an even greater amount silly amount of scrutiny I was checked into India.

Protector of the Stupa

The contrast between these two countries was immediately apparent. While I had found Nepal wonderful it was nonetheless dirty, crowded and generally chaotic. That naturally was in contrast to beautiful California – In contrast to India, Nepal is a model of cleanliness, civility, and calm.  The first indication of this was when for 100rp (about a 2 to 1 exchange rate in India, thus 100rp is about $2.00) I secured a ride in a jeep to Gorakhpur. I was told this was a MUCH better and more comfortable option than a bus; then we put 15, yes that says fifteen, people in a 4 door jeep – 4 in front seat, 5 in back seat, 6 behind back seat.  I was in the back seat…in the middle of the back seat; two men on my left, and a woman and her son on my right. The ride was 3 hours and our young driver was, candidly, a little punk who drove completely out of control with the horn depressed a full two hours of the drive. Upon arrival he was adamant about a tip – I told him I needed my pack from the top of the jeep, mumbled to myself that you are on crack if you think you are getting a tip for making me a human sardine, and then trying to kill me.  I walked away with him shouting….likely calling me something rather poetic in Hindi.

Shops outside are less weathly

Upon arriving at the train station I set out to buy a ticket to Varanasi where I was planning on going in a few days after visiting the final resting place of Buddha (Kushinagar).  I had read the book on how to go about doing this, and I entered the station with great confidence and resolve.  An hour later I left the station with no ticket, a list of resentments, and a high level of frustration.  The fact that the guide book said there was an excellent information center only added to my frustrations because after asking dozen of people where it was I discovered it had been closed for a very long time; and my guide book had only been published a few weeks prior. I was not getting off to a particularly good start in India.

I figured I would try my luck at an Indian ATM as I was limited to the Indian rupees I had been able to secure in Nepal.  Tried taking money from checking account – Denied.  Tried taking money from savings account – Denied.  Tried other bank card – Denied, Denied.  On the fifth try, to the eye rolling of the security guard who was dealing with the 30 people in the queue who were about to kill the westerner, I tried taking money out of my “current” (what ever that is)  account and out spit 10,000rp (~$200). “Lets get out of this town all ready”.  I pre-paid (MISTAKE, as I lost all of your leverage) for a taxi and headed to my second major pilgrimage site of Buddhist. A few minutes into the trip the driver pulled into get petrol (which I later found out is typical as they never have any fuel in the cars) and insisted that I pay.  I just sat there and refused; once the queue started to back up and it was obvious I was not paying, he put a few litters into the car and we headed out.  Ten minutes later, he stops again and tells me that he “takes lunch”.  At this point I resulted to yelling…something about having to meet friends and pointing to my watch – we kept going. Upon arrival in Kushinagar, I felt instantly at ease as it was obviously a place of Buddhist pilgrims and thus much less insane…almost calm even. The driver, unbelievably, again insisted on a tip and as I walked away from the cab I again muttered to myself.  I then thought: “Ok, you need to figure this out or you will not make it a week here and you’re  are likely to kill someone if you do not adapt quickly.”

Remains of the old Stupa and Monastery

I had read that the Japanese monastery had very nice rooms available for a donation.  I found the monastery, confirmed with the gate man that they indeed had rooms available and sought out the Monk I needed to confirm with.  When I met the monk, he literally looked me up and down and then proceeded to lie and tell me they had no rooms available. Before this trip I held monks, like priest before them,  in the highest regard and many, even most, deserve this respect. But some are no better than pedophile Priest; I have seen them kick dogs and children on the street, and have heard many hide behind their robes and do much worse than that – they are people, most are good, some are not.  A guy on the street said he new a good place for me to stay, and given my options were limited in this small town I went to see the room; pretty much beyond description, but feces all around the squat toilet and tracked into the filthy room had me think better of touching anything let alone staying there.  My Tibetan friend Choezom told me if I was ever in need of help, I should find a Tibetan.  She actually said: “Indians sometimes helpful, Nepali most times helpful, Tibetan’s always helpful. Biased for sure, but I was in a jam. So while the guide book said the Tibetan monastery was marginal, I figured I would try and find a Tibetan. The care taker, an Indian and most likely Hindu,  quickly and pleasantly introduced me to one of the two monks who live there and I explained my friends from Tashling said I may seek lodging or assistance here.  “You are our welcomed guest, we can not offer much but what we have is yours”. The room was old and decrepit but they kept it clean and provided me the best blankets they had available.  I know they were the best because I saw theirs, full of holes, airing out. They also gave me anti mosquito smoke sticks, and candles as their power was very limited.  The toilet was outside, but clean and I took my turn at filling the large roof top water tank using the hand pump. Tibetan pilgrims from Ladak accompanied by their local Lama arrived the next day and I felt guilty as a dozen of them shared a room similar to my single occupant room. I asked if they needed extra space as I had more than enough, they simply looked at me like I was confused and explained they had more then enough also.

Final resting place of Sidhartha Buddha

Seeing the gold statue of the resting Buddha, and more importantly the reverence that pilgrims from around Asia gave the statue, I was moved in my understanding that this truly is a holy place. I found myself also kneeling, hands clasped, and head bowed out of respect.  I spoke with two Burma (Mirmar) monks who gave me a comprehensive overview of the historic significance of Kushinagar and then politely asked for a tip.  I find this often with the Indian monks, and the Burmese monks while the Nepali or Tibetan monks never ask for money. In fact, when you try to give them some, they often refuse. Regardless, I gave a donation and we parted ways friends.

I also learned a common scam prevalent throughout India; seems many restaurants or other businesses just never seem to have the correct change and suggest that if you come back for another meal they will have change or give you credit.  I fell for this a few times, but have now developed a better (for me anyway) strategy.  When they say they do not have the correct change, I simply say “That is not a problem as I may come back again and will pay my bill later“, or I tell them “That is ok, you can give me a mineral water for the road to make up the difference you owe me”.  Funny thing, they always seem to find change after that.   Please don’t get me wrong, I find the Indian people lovely with most being incredibly kind, generous, and honest.  But there is enough of the population, particularly around tourist areas, who are simply crooks that you have to keep your guard up…which is unfortunate as it can make you think less of the people as a whole.  My rule of thumb is: trust everyone with discretion, and always always always, listen to your gut feeling.  When you get honest behavior thank your benefactor profusely, and when you are getting cheated, call the perpetrator out, look them in the eye and tell them I know you are cheating me. I do this politely but firmly.

There was still that little problem of getting a train ticket to Varanasi and again I sought the help of the local Tibetan monk who “knew a guy”.  Now from what I can tell, knowing a guy, is pretty much how everything gets done in India. Like Pulk Fiction, you simply need a “Cleaner” to get stuff taken care of.  So the “guy” who gives me a ride back to Gorakhapur, also helps me navigate how to secure a train ticket. Once I was confident I was in the right line, with the correct paper work I gladly paid him for his assistance.  Ah, but how do you keep you place in an Indian line at the train station?  Being polite simply does not work as people just keep cutting in front of you.  This went on for about 30 minutes until a big bloke from Australia showed up and we compared notes on not going anywhere in this line. “Ok, you block on the left and I will block on the right”.  Pretty soon, after politely demonstrating we were not about to let anyone else cut in line we were in the front of the queue. What we did not know however was that women are allowed to go to the front of the line. So when we double blocked a Muslim women in full veil we were duly and appropriately chastised and educated.  We let her go but jokingly got into a blocking posture to the great laughter of the hundred men behind us. Ok, this works, keep a good attitude, and when you make mistakes just laugh at yourself. Fortunately I booked my ticket for the correct train and while amazingly stressful actually found the correct platform; this is not easy when the message boards are written in Hindi, the announcements are impossible to understand, and no-one seems to speak English in the smaller outlying stations. I did however book into the wrong compartment.  I booked “sleeper” class.  It was marginally ok for me and I have pretty high tolerance.  Compared to general seating or standing it must look to many locals as elegant, but for a westerne,r, it was a bit rough. There was three small bunks on each wall and once my pack and I were on the top level I remembered my Marine Corps days, not fondly, experience aboard a U.S navel ship.   The car was filthy, and the bathroom made the car look clean, but as typical I slept pretty darn well.

Neapli Wedding

December 13, 2009
Nepali wedding In Lumbini, Nepal
Monks at tree Buddha was born under (a sapling from the original the story goes)
I woke at 6am after a great rest following a long day of overland travel and a somewhat stressful situation in finding lodging after dark when all the electricity was out….again.
Indian Buddhist spinning giant prayer wheel

The guide book recommended hiring a rickshaw to transport  you from one Nations’ monastery (in reverence) to another, or hire a bicycle and do it yourself.  I instead opted to walk.  I figured that after spending 9 hours on three local buses the day prior, as I traveled from the Tibetan refuge camp near Pokhora to the birth place (Lumbini) of Sidhartha Buddha, I could use the exercise. By midday I had likely covered 10K and was getting tired and hungry, and realized my food options were roasted peanuts and potentially a banana or tangerine from a rickshaw vendor. Or potentially ice cream that was being sold to the hundreds of Indian tourist; it looked good, but I had my droughts regarding my stomach agreeing so I told myself that lunch was going to be wait until dinner.  I bought some peanuts.

Taiwan temple

I wondered off the main path and found myself at the under construction Nepalese monastery.  The man at the gate was uninterested so I simply walked in to the bamboo scaffolding, the young (15) girls hauling sacks of pea gravel to the upper level on their heads, and the men planning boards by hand to make the interior bookshelves.  Soon I was met by the Project Manager who was monk from the Manang monastery I had visited while trekking around Annapurna. He was delighted in my interest and he explained the reincarnation history of his guru (who was somehow responsible for this monastery being build but I did not following entirely), and how it came to be that he was now building a great monument and equally good karma in his work.  And the work was impressive.  Inside I met the master painter who was responsible for incredibly intricate murals on all the walls and ceilings (about the size of a high school basketball arena). Given our Christian heritage we pay great attention to Michelangelo and his master works, but having seen both, I can attest to the artistry of Asia painters as being equally magnificent.
Nuns and Monks from Burma (Myanmar)

“You take dal-bhat” the monk asked.  I politely refused as I knew this was food off of someone else’s plate but there was no arguing as this was not a question but rather a statement.  On the brick pile in the sun, the local workers had placed jars of pickled peppers and were livening lunch up a bit with some “hot”. So thinking “When in Nepal do as the Nepali“, I helped myself to one green and one red pepper while the girls giggled with glee and the men shook their heads in warning.  I should have heeded the men’s council.  This was particularly apparent  when I realized I could not safely drink the water on the job site. The monk ordered some boiled water be prepared but I can’t say that boiling water helps much when your esophagus is sweating or evening bleeding hot. After lunch I tried to make a donation and was flatly refused.  “You are our guest, you are always welcome here, travel in peace my friend”..  I bowed in deference and waved to the girls as they filled, placed atop their heads, and carried more bags up the bamboo ladders.

Making tar to mix with  for the roads around Monasteries (town is dirt)

Da Peppers

At about 15k I had had enough and excepted the offer to jump side saddle onto the rack of an ancient single speed bicycle. The locals make it look so easy, and I have watched gorgeous women in brightly colored saris do it with grace and beauty a thousand times.  I, on the other hand, nearly crashed the poor kid pedaling the bike, and almost ended up on my bumm in the process. I declined the ride, but the kid really wanted the 50 rupees so we tried from a stand still and with a push from another boy we finally achieved forward momentum.  It was only then that I realized that to sit side saddle on a bicycle requires you perform one continuous abdominal crunch, and after a fee hundred meters I was beginning to shake as unused muscles revolted. Days later as I write this, I am still sore.

My bike

The next day I again awoke early and walked the other direction into the local village of Lumbini.  The contrast is amazing.  In the park you literally have multi-million dollar monastery’s that are supported by Buddhist communities from their home countries and in the local village you have people living in straw shelters along with their goats, and ox. I do not think many Westerners go that way because when I drew my camera I was immediately swarmed by every village kid wanting his picture taken.  I obliged and took an hour taking photos.  This is always a mixed blessing because after such a session it is nearly impossible to escape the grasp of these kids and often their parents.  I think this is why most people avoid interactions with locals and rather stay on the path or in the tourist bus.  It is hard to look at a group of people who are beyond description less fortunate then you, and simply walk away. And the irony is you are somehow richer for the experience; I certainly hope they are as well, but I have my doubts.

Lumbini boy

I secured a bicycle of my own and hit the back roads; until I threw a chain in the middle of a rice dyke and crushed my finger on the rear cog as I put it back on.  It is funny, I remembered how to ride a single speed bike for my childhood but I somehow forgot that when you are turning the pedal with one hand and holding the chain in the other, make damn sure you keep you fingers out of that gear.

Town of Lumbin

Village of Lumbini (yes those are homes in the backgrougd

I decided to tend to my wounds at one of the Japanese hotels that charge a hundred dollars a night (that is a fortune in Nepal), and then figured lunch was in order. This may be my new strategy – live on the cheap and then find out where the Japanese high rollers stay.  The lunch was nearly $20usd but included 5 courses and green tea.  The rest of the afternoon I road around the county side realizing that was the best meal since leaving the US nearly three months ago, and also realizing that it cost nearly a months wages for the average Nepali. Late in the afternoon, I rented the hotel car and maniac, but skilled, driver and visited Sidhartha’s mothers kingdom. I walked threw the same arches that he did; the arches that led from his Princely life of wealth and isolation, to one of suffering and ultimate enlightenment and teaching. At that point I realized, that I would indeed visit the other pilgrimage sites of Buddhism.  My friend Michael Wirth described my trip as a pilgrimage before I even left, and I did not know what she meant; now I am chasing Buddha across the subcontinent.

Knowing that my Nepali Visa expired the next day, I got back to the hotel at 6pm with plans for an early evening that included money exchange, transportation and immigration coordination.

Ox in Lumbini village

I was greeting at the door by the hotel manager and his lovely wife who were waiting for the only car they had access to (the one I had ,and the one which we just put a completely bald spare tire on after a flat).  He was dressed in a meticulously tailored suit with a beautiful silt tie, and she was adorned in her finest sari, bracelets, necklaces‘, and nose and ear rings.  They were the most beautiful couple. “We go to best friends wedding, hurry you must come with us”.  Dressed in trekking gear and a baseball hat I explained that I indeed owned a nice suit, even a tuxedo, but had nothing appropriate with me given this obvious very formal affair.  “No, no, he is my best friend and you will be a most honored guest, you must attend”.  His wife simply nodded and smiled/.  I ran upstairs, threw the hat on the bed, combed my hair with my fingers, brushed my teeth, throw on some cheap Nepali antiperspirant/deodorant and was in the car in three minutes; Off to a Nepali wedding.

Bride and groom

Jupiter and his wife (my host)

An honored guest indeed.  We stopped on the way to buy a wedding gift in a fairly large town near the Indian border and I found the epitome USA cheesy rose flowered, sappy text wedding card.  I simply signed it “Congratulations on your wedding day from the American who just showed up”.  At the door the in-laws greeted me with great fanfare and kicked people out of their seats for me, Jupiter, and his wife. We enjoyed an amazing dinner of traditional Nepali food  and given that at least some of the guest were Buddhist everyone was, shockingly, by USA comparison, completely sober. When the dancing, that was limited to those dressed for a formal, started, I tried to work my way to the back but the other guest were having known of it. Thus, I said the hell with it and danced in a style that was later referred to an “unique’….code word “you suck dude”. The biggest cheers came when me and the new in-laws got down with our imitations of Michael Jackson.  The bride and groom, simply sat in their assigned seats and watched the craziness before them; he is a western suit, and she is a beyond bright red sari adored with sequins; I am sorry American women, white is nice but red is the color for a striking bride.
Wedding Party

Tibetan Friends

Tibetan friends, Pokhora, Nepal
Welcome to Pokhora
Boatman before sunrise

Before sunrise I hired a boatman to row me across the lake so I could hike the alternate route up to the World Peace Pagoda overlooking the lake side town of Pokhora, Nepal. I arrived at the monument just after sunrise as the Himalayas came into view   – I sat in silence inside the Japanese Monastery as a monk hypnotically beat a drum and chatted a peace mantra. A anti atomic bomb reminder hung prominently above. When he saw me, he gestured to come forward and I expected a request for a small donation.  Instead, he opened a small brass jar and gave me a peace of hard candy and nodded silentlyl; he then went back to his chanting and rhythm drum work –  I went back to listening silently. Hours later, after tea and enjoying the view from the Stupa before the bus of Korean kids came up from the other “easy”  side, he was still sitting in the same place, performing the same brain focusing work.

World peace Pagoda

Upon returning to Pokhora lakeside, I was in a particularly calm, peaceful, and generous mood so I decided to look at some of the small souvenirs offered by the Tibetan women who carried their offerings in small day packs.  For days they had patiently and politely asked me to make a small purchase to “Help” and I had equally patiently and politely declined.  Today was different however and I knew that If I looked ,I would be compelled to buy a little something to help them out. Unfortunately, there were 7 women who sell in the neighborhood of my hotel so one by one I had to look and buy.  At the end, I had more stuff than I possibly needed given I had also bought some stuff trekking. So  I simply bought something from one seller and gave her another piece I had previously bought.  I didn’t haggle on the price and they all knew that I knew that I was over paying; but really….the prices were stupid cheap by our standards and they had made these pieces that were there means of livelihood.  I maybe spend $50usd. Who would have known that this small kindness would be returned a hundred fold in the days to come


The next day, I remembered that I had 1.5kg of Tang left from trekking that I was not likely going to use, and I also had several kilos of popcorn that Angin’s mother had graciously given me after Angin told her I eat it all the time and loved the small mountain corn.   Given that I could not ship the popcorn and had no way of cooking it, I figured I would offer it to my Tibetan sales women and ask if maybe they could pop a little bit for me. They were very grateful and recommended that I walk to their refuge camp and see the Tibetan rugs – I did but unfortunately the Maoist had told them, while carrying sticks, that they must close for the day in solidarity of the strike.

Boys of Pokhora

Side note: from what I have read in the local papers, I am empathic to the Maoist position and what appear to be legitimate grievances. That said, having young thugs with stick close poverty stricken shops, including my tiny barber stall, is just bullshit and in no way can be good for the country.

Now the Tibetans of the village, being the great adapters, figured this would  simply be a good time to have a town meeting, which they did and discussed the upcoming democratic elections being held in Dharmasala (the exiled capital of Tibet, which is in India). Tibetans are not Indian, or Nepali citizens…they are literally exiled and refuges with no citizenship, 50 years after the invasion of Tibet from China in 1959, but fortunately the Indian government has largely stayed out of their affairs as they maintain an exiled government. And fortunately the Nepali government has also largely left them alone and allowed the establishment of refuge camps.  At his point, there are children of children  of the original Tibetans who fled their homeland.

Tibetan women weaving belt (in violation of the Moaist imposed strike)

Returning, I ran into the women (~30-~65 years old) and told them I could not see the rug factory, but I did sit in on part of their town meeting and an old man translated for me. They gave me some of the popcorn that they had popped and commented that this must be “high county” corn, which it was, because it was “so very good”. They told me to meet them by the selling tree the next morning because they were going to bring breakfast.

Black tea, with butter, and a LOT of salt, equals Tibetan tea.  They say it is an acquired taste and maybe after years that is so, but it is pretty awful and I have drank a good many cups in the last weeks seeking the allusive “acquired” part.  We drank our tea and ate Tibetan bread and then I jumped into a jeep and headed for my paragliding adventure.

Flying was truly a remarkable experience and acting like a bird as the thermals took us higher and higher was impressive.  But I could not help but think about my friends in town, who brought me breakfast and who were selling jewelry in hopes of making a few dollars, if that, a day.


Unfortunately flying is also like being on a carnival ride and 40 minutes into my hours flight I was releasing my Tibetan Tea and  bread to the good humor of my French pilot. We descended very quickly and a coke largely fixed the taste in my mouth.  I walked an hour back to town thankful for the experience and went straight to bed.

Egg Delivery

The following morning I had planned to leave Pokhora but another strike was planned and thus I opted to leave the day after.  Following breakfast the girls found me (they never once asked me to buy another thing), and bought black tea while I purchased some bananas and tangerines from the street vendor.  We drank tea, ate fruit and laughed about me getting sick.  When they inquired about when I was leaving.  I told them my plans and they explained that if I could stay, I could come back to village, stay at  their brand new guest house, and celebrate the 20th anniversary of His Holiness the Dalai Lama  winning the Nobel Peace prize. You know, why not; besides one of the women – I found out was single, in the appropriate (as defined by this culture) age category (over 30, over 20 is actually fine here but does not work for me) nice, and quite attractive. I was not looking for any romance but interacting with single women is simple different than those who are attached. I packed my bags, checked out of my good but sterile hotel and walked back to the refugee camp with nothing but a name as a reference.

“You must be Mr. Robert, we expecting you,  thank you much for being guest at new house, and helping our community, your room is prepared for you”.  And what a nice room, a great young cook who prepared wonderful meals on a two burning portable stove, and a welcome from 800 Tibetan refugees the next day.   The guest house was build with donations from westerners and contains 4 rooms.  It employs 5 young camp members who are well educated but have no prospects for jobs.  The idea is to create there own jobs in a sort of “teach a man to fish” way.   All proceeds go into the general community fund. I was thrilled to be here and very happy that I was getting a good service for abiet slightly elevated price –  but the money was going to help the many rather than benefit a few.

Preparing food

I got up early but not early enough because when I got to the outdoor kitchen I found team B (there are three teams in the camp, and each team takes on the community duties for one year) hard at work preparing food for all inhabitants as well as those even less fortunate in the surrounding Nepali village. I drank more Tibetan tea as I took photos and tried to stay out of the way.  Buy this point, everyone in town seemed to know who I was (along with an aspiring Nun, we were apparently the only Westerner invited. Their were three young Australian girls who were volunteering there for a month), and it was all smiles and explanations regarding what was being prepared on the wood and propane stoves.  Every seen a Wok that is big enough to fry multiple  Kilos of rice?  Big.

Prepare food

I went to the flag ceremony led by the camps monastics, and spun the prayer wheels while chanting the now familiar mantra which is said to be untranslatable because it encompasses all of the Dharma, or wisdom, of Buddhism. Each prayer wheel has this same inscription written on it, and I discovered that inside each cylinder is filled with small pieces of paper containing the mantra as well.  Thus you are saying, and amplifying this mantra thousands of time with each revolution of the wheel.

We went to the blessing for His Holiness and I was ushered forward to pay honors as well.  I was self conscious as I did not no how to show respect but simply followed the lead of those in front of me; when done, the Lama  smiled broadly and clasped my hand and nodded.

Food for 800

We feasted on buffalo, dal-bhat, sweat rice with fruit, and really good yogurt. “I thought Buddhist were vegetarian” I inquired to Choezom as we ate alone while  the old women whispered.   “Did not Buddha teach that one should refrain from killing”? “ Oh yes” Choezom replied, “ That is Buddhist teaching, and we do not kill anything,,,,, but the Buddha said nothing about eat if dead, so ok  we eat… bought the buffalo from someone else who kill”.  And thus we get a perfect insight into the adaptability of the Buddhist philosophy.

Monks and secular boys

In the afternoon Choezom and I walked along the river, through a local part of Pokhora, and amongst the rice fields.  We sat on a bench together for awhile and while I have no idea what she was thinking, and we did not discuss, I had a strong feeling of awkwardness until I regrouped and recognized that here was a kind friend and a wonderful person and enjoyed the remainder of the day with that thought alone.

Tibetan friend making yarn

While the rest of the village ate again (I do not know how that was possible) we drank Nescafe coffee in her tiny back yard  adjacent to the semi-indoor kitchen that she shares with 2 sisters, one brother, and one brother in law. We talked of travel, of places I have been, was going (some she had visited as a guest of other travelers)  and places she hoped to see one day. We talked about the plight of the Tibetan people, why the police had showed up at our celebration today (at the request of the Chinese government to the Nepali government to ensure ongoing intimidation and compliance ….according to the Tibetan perspective which I understand fully is only one perspective).

Choezom and village child

Then we danced and danced some more. Young, old, ancient….we all danced.  We danced until the power went out…literally.  And I watched how a community works; everyone watches the children,  and while I do not hold babies as my family will attest I held a few this night.  And everyone monitors and enforces appropriate behavior; when one young man had obviously been drinking, he was escorted off the dance floor.  When he first refused his friends, his parents stepped in while other looked on approvingly and then started dancing again. During the day, two teenage boys got into a bit of scuffle and when the one boy would not calm down his quite elderly mother pinned him to a wall in front of the entire community.  Choezom explained to me, that tomorrow the parents would hold a meeting with the two boys to ensure the problem would not fester or potentially grow. It was impressive to see.  And yet, Choezom explained to me that it has it downfalls.  “What are those” I inquired.  “You see all of these people are my extended family, so getting married here is like marrying your brother, marrying your brother who you grew up with, who does not have a job and who has no prospect of getting one”.  She said this is in a perfectly factual manor with no bitterness or even perceived longing…just a simple way that I have noted, particularly amongst the Tibetans and the mountain Nepali’s, and one that Choezom herself described as simply “The way things are….we do not concern yourself with the ways things are, as that is a waste of time.”  At first I thought this was defeatist but then I saw plenty of action that proves that is not the case.  The difference here verses my perspective at home is, here they only focus on the things they can change and they actually do seem to know the difference as the prayer recommends.

Village grls

I new I was leaving in the morning and had that awful feeling you get when traveling after you meet wonderful people, you know you have to go, and in this case in particular I maybe actually needed to go, and yet a part of me wanted to stay….. At 4am I got up as Annie, the aspiring nun was heading on a sunrise sight seeing trip around Pokhora with Choezom and my other friend as guides.  We said our good-byes in the dark and they each gave me a scarf (I forget its specific name but they are for safe travels)  Angin had previously given me one as well, so now I travel with three. I made a donation to the community and tried to help my friends out a bit as well, and told myself  if I am every in Nepal again, I will come back and see the dear people of Tashiling refugee camp. Next time I will help chop the vegetables.

My Friend Choezom


Monasteries on Annapurna
Buddha eye

Another advantage of a good guide is access.  The Buddhist monasteries along the trek are truly spectacular but they are often locked during the time that is convent for your visit. For Angin, being a Buddhist himself, this posed no problems.  He invariably started talking to someone, often an ancient women spinning a prayer wheel, and shortly someone would show up and give us complete access.  In Manang  this happened and I soon found we were sitting with the local Lama asking for a blessing of our upcoming mountain crossing.  We lit candles and chanted some and I was taken with how serious Angin was taking the whole process and realized that while incredibly competent in the mountains, the mountain people certainly do not suffer from hubris and take any pass over 5000m as a serious undertaking.

On the day of our summit, we were blessed as the temperature were quite cold but we have clear skies and no wind.  Days before we met several groups who had turned around to difficult conditions.   We left high camp at 5am along with many of the other trekkers but the pass was owned this day by Angin and I.  We were both healthy, both strong and we made the pass at 6:45 as the sun rose over the Himalaya.  I was the first westerner on the top this day and me along with Angin and other porters had the world to ourselves as others moved slowly up the mountain. Had Island Peak been in front of me today, there would have been no quitting as I could have easily climbed another thousand meters this day.  And knowing that was really good and helped me reflect on not climbing Island Peak weeks before; there are days you are supposed to be successful and there are days you are supposed to know it is simply not your day.

Monastery painting
Prayer wheels

Low tech (old cans) prayer wheels

Om Mani Ped Na Hum

Temple painting

Prayer works