Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Kathmandu Day Tour

I was given a private day tour of Kathmandu today with a driver and a guide. I normally frown upon such arrangement but as soon as we got out of the door I realized there is no other way to sightsee here. The road condition is terrible. Very few of them are actually paved. The bumpy ride is met with an overflow of motorcycles everywhere. Then, throw in a variety of other vehicles, pedestrians, and no traffic lights or rules, you've got an impossible commute.

The poor traffic condition makes am even poorer air quality. Many people walk around with a face mask. The dust and smog is visible from Swayambhunath, our first stop in the morning. Swayambhunath Temple sits on top of a hill west of Kathmandu and is home to tons of holy monkeys, hence the site is also known as the monkey temple. The sky looked amazingly blue above the white stupa.

Next, we stopped at Kathmandu Durbar Square, where the royal family once resided. There are a collection of different temple designated to individual Hindu deities. We also visited the House of Kumari. Later I read that baby girls are selected to live there and worshipped as the human incarnation of goddess Taleju until they reach puberty. This reminded me of the vestal virgins in the Roman tradition. Here, only born Hindus are allowed to enter into the house to worship the kumari, hence the sign for no entry for foreigners in both English and Chinese!

The guide informed me that the Chinese make up the largest portion of tourists here. For some reason that really surprised me. I asked if they do any hiking here, since native Chinese are not the most physically active people. The guide said no, very few people hike here and the ECB is a tough trek. Just about all of the Chinese tourists come here to visit culture sites and take pictures with their fancy cameras. Now I feel less Chinese with my camera phone. For $2500+/hour people can take a helicopter ride to the base camp to see Mt. Everest. I guess I better stick to the cheaper way of walking there.

On our way to Boudhanath Stupa, I asked how much is lunch going to cost me. The guide said around ten dollars. Wow, that's really expensive, I responded. I recall people mentioning stay in Nepal on $10/day including room and board. Besides, $10 for lunch sounds expensive anywhere. But it made more sense once we arrived at the restaurant with a beautiful balcony overlooking Boudhanath Stupa. A cat came to visit me during lunch. Before i left in the morning someone said I'll see lots of monk activities today due to the festivity. But monk activity is kind of an oxymoron since all the do is sit. I felt strange eating while watching and listening to monks pray for world peace below me. I likely would have avoid such touristy spot myself.

After lunch, the guide asked if I would like to see the crematory. Now, that's a question you don't hear everyday. I looked perplexed and said, sure, why not, if it's a part of the tour. The guide explain some people prefer not to see dead bodies burn. For some reason I envisioned the crematory as a nice building to look at from the outside, not as literally burning dead bodies outside on top of a pile of wood as seen in movies about India! Lucky for me there were three bodies burning away as we walked up the Bagmati River. The smoke was overwhelming. According to Hindu tradition, bodies must be burned within 24 hours of death. The process takes four hours and the family members wait around until the end to release the ashes into the river.
The Pasupatinath Temple is just up the river from the burning bodies, above the spot reserved for members of the royal family. This Hindu shrine is dedicated to Shiva. The singing and dancing created a stark contrast to the mourners less that 20 meters away.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

First Day in Nepal

I slept for six hours and woke up at 6am local time with warm hands and feet. What a good feeling. The last thing I remember was crawled up in fetal position in a cold bed. I doubt things are going to improve from here on. I might have under-packed by an average tourist standard but I'm still traveling with a mobile home accounting to the ultralight hiker Jay Jardine. The intent is to stay warm through movement and wear all my layers to bed at night. And like running a race, a trip like this is no time to test out new gears or hiking boots. Fortunately we'll not be camped outside so at least we'll be out of the elements. Accommodations will get more basic once we start our trek. That's OK. I don't feel strongly about taking showers in this kind of temperature anyways. If I ever get on the PCT I'm shaving my head.
High altitude sickness is a major concern of mine. Having had two rough trips to Cusco this year I'm hoping the third time will be the charm. Wherever I describe my ordeals to other they always shake my head and say, man, that sounds awful, don't think I'll be doing that on my vacation. I'm no fan of throbbing headache from brain swelling or projectile vomiting, but the prospect of being out there, in the mountains, with thin air and all, draws me like nothing else. This is the time to do this while I'm in good shape.
I'll be 5,550 meters up this time, over 19,000 feet, much higher than I've ever been. The air contains 40-50% less oxygen up there. Prolonged exposure to oxygen deprivation is no joke. Acute mountain sickness feels like the worst hangover you'll ever have and can be deadly. Once someone starts to lose balance and comprehension skills the only life saving cure is oxygen and rapid descend. I hope the more gradual ascend on foot will be easier on my body. Only time will tell. I brought Diamox, the high altitude medication, with me. Thanks to my doctor for the ineffective. I would prefer not to take it but I need to avoid getting to a cyclical state where I can't keep anything down in my stomach because by then it'll be too late for anything except oxygen and IV for fluids. I won't be eating much on the trek except trying to get enough carbs for energy and easy digestion. I have a small supply of granola bars and energy gels in case I can't get quality food or having a hard time with digestion in the mountains. From this point on staying healthy is the key.
Breakfast at the hotel consisted of potatoes, fried eggs, sautéed cabbage with baby corn and ham. I scarfed down everything and refrained from getting a second serving. I sat alone at a table for four and drank hot black tea with soft modern Buddha chanting music in the background. There was a decorated Christmas tree on the counter and other around the window. I watched people go by on the small street outside. The day awaits. I'm in no hurry.


After traveling for nearly 24 hours I have finally arrived at the opposite part of the planet: Kathmandu, Nepal. Everything went smoothly once I left the gravitational pull of NYC. The flights were on time, I got some shut-eye, caught a dozen episodes of The Big Bang Theory, and even enjoyed some surprisingly palatable airplane food. The last leg of the flight from Abu Dhabi came with fish biryani.

The director of the tour company, Balaram, met me at the airport with a sign with my name on it. Silence is easier to practice when you don't speak the language. What a relief!

Except Balaram has a good command of the English language and he used it to express some concerns over my pack. He asked:
Do you have everything you need for the trek?
Even a sleeping bag? A down jacket?
Your pack looks small!
I tried to pack light because I like to carry my own gear. I have everything I need, even trekking poles.

It's true I saw other tourists with packs three times larger than mine with big water bottles on the sides and walking around in brand new waterproof hiking boots. I have finally graduated into a discriminating backpacker.

I tried a couple of more times to reassure him that I have everything I need and I can carry my pack for the trek. I don't think I succeeded in convincing him but we were allowed to move onto other topics such as payment and the weather. Guaranteed departure date is always one of my biggest concerns for this kind of trips and a major reason why I choose this tour company. A couple from Singapore just delayed their trip so it looks like I'll be getting a 16-day private tour.

The drive from the airport didn't take long. It was dark outside so I couldn't really get a sense of anything. My hotel is in Thamel, the tourist center of the city. I guess it's easy to tell from the wide variety of restaurants in this neighborhood. Someone once told me he had the best pizza in Kathmandu. I hope to find some local cuisine. The room is simple and chilly. A few minutes after I checked in the power went out and came back on.

It's past 10:30pm local time now. Nepal is GMT +5:45, or 10:45 ahead of New York. It's my first time in a time zone not rounded to the whole hour. Thanks to the precision I now have to perform rudimentary math calculations. I'm a bit hungry but I think the best thing to do now is to get some more rest. There will be a breakfast tomorrow and a city tour starting at 10am. The rest of the itinerary is online at:

Nightmares Before Kathmandu

I can't count the number of days I survive off the kindness of others. The older I get the more I collect and the tougher it is to get away. New York is an amazing place to live but a lousy a home base for travel. The thought of paying a month of rent for an UWS apartment while traveling abroad turns my stomach.

I had originally rented the place out to an opera singing couple for the most part of my winter break. I then booked my travels according to those dates only to have the renters cancel on me in the middle of my final exam period. As a last minute resort I found another couple from Paris to rent the place for a week between Xmas and New Years. Although they sounded pretty normal from the booking correspondences, it made me feel uneasy that their profile had no reviews and even less comfortable since I wasn't able to meet them at check in.

Since I was scheduled to be in NYC for one night and I wanted to meet them in person to make sure everything was on before I fly out again. I tried to contact them numerous times via email, text, call, waiting outside the building, and knocking the door. I got no response. When I finally I went inside to check on the cats. They had no water. My place was a complete mess and smelled like cigarettes even though there's a no smoking policy. The renter was inside and started to screaming and cursing at me. The woman complained about lack of closet space in her underwear. She was drunk. They're French. I apologized repeatedly but it was no use. I asked if they want to check out now and I can refund then the remainder of the rent. They said no. I gave the cats fresh water, cleaned the car litter, took out the garbage, and left. Dear God, it was dramatizing.

Thankfully I found a reliable person to cat set in January on a short notice. She's one of the volunteers I meet during my training. The previous cat setter left them unattended for six days. I can now leave knowing she'll be there to make sure everything is OK.

We had coffee together before I went to the pharmacy for my refill. There's no point going to the base camp without a sufficient supply of Diamox. I probably wouldn't even get half way up with my sensitivity to high altitude.

I had no plans or a place to stay last night so I decided to got in touch with a friend from school to catch up. Fortunately he was free and didn't mind company. He treated me to a tasty burger near to his place on W14 for the times I've helped him out. We've been waiting to do this for a while now but everyone was always too stressed out with school to have a semi normal social life. It was nice to finally catch up. Afterwards Gabe invited me to stay at his place. His physical illnesses, chronical stress and personality aren't great for keeping a tighty place so we did a little cleaning up before settling down for the night. It's good to know good people.

I stayed awake for much of the night trying not to worry. It was such a relief when daylight came so I could get back to JFK. In the end I dealt with everything the best I could with the time and resources I had. This is the hidden cost of traveling. The more we carry the harder it is to break free. I know I'll feel better when I get there.

No Buffet

Four hours layover in Abu Dhabi. For some reason I thought I was supposed to transfer in Dubai. That tells you how well I know my geography in this part of the world. Still, it was lovely seeing the snow capped mountain ranges near Iran.

Rose mentioned some fantastic buffet at the Dubai airport with a giant chocolate fountain. Unfortunately the choices here are McDonald or Burger King, neither of which seems appealing to me. I have a feeling this is going to be the start of my 20-day involuntary dieting program.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

Sunday, December 21, 2014

When Things Fall Apart, They Come Together

Sometimes you head out on a trip as a pair and you end up having to finish it solo. Such was the case for our Arenal excursion.

The morning started off with my phone sounding an alarm at what I thought was 5am. As I tossed and turned in bed trying to gather enough will to prop myself upright, Anna said, "did you realize it's only 4am local time?" She sounded grumpier than a habitual morning person. Finally at fifteen after five, Anna dashed out for coffee at the 24-hour restaurant around the corner. I slowly got dressed and gathered my things. The sky looked just as reluctant as it attempts to light up behind heavy clouds. Anna was kind enough to have brought back a small cup of coffee for me, with milk, just the way I liked it. I drenched myself in Deet in preparation for a day of hiking in the forest. Minutes later, I sat on one of the rocking chairs on the balcony outside of our room trying to soak it all in as I watched Anna leaving through the courtyard in the rain.

Giovanni told us the night before, if the sloth is sitting high up on the tree it means we'll have a sunny day the next day. Well, the sloth we saw last night obviously needs to be talked to, I thought. Still, I was glad to see dark clouds and rain. It made the air feel cooler and the forest more mysterious. After all, what's a rainforest without rain?

The light at the reception office came on at 6am. I showered myself with a second generous dosage of Deet, packed all of our things, surveyed the room, dropped off our packs at the luggage storage, and checkout of the hotel. A day of adventure was waiting, even more adventurous than I could have imagined.

Anna and I sipped our coffee while watching a parade of colorful birds feeding on the bananas Giovanni hung for them on the flower branches next to his porch. We even saw a Baltimore Oriole on his southern vacation. What a spot! I thought. Afterwards, we walked through the same 2km trail as we did the night before and said good morning to the sloths high up on the trees.

We had planned to finish the tour just before 8am in order to catch the only bus going to Arenal National Park. I kept a close eye on the time and got more anxious as the morning progressed. If we miss this bus the only other alternative would be a $30 taxi ride. For whatever reason I found the second option supremely unsatisfactory. Anna, on the other hand, couldn't have cared less about going to the park even though I thought that was our principle reason to come to La Fortuna. At last, we finished the trail with ten minutes to catch the bus. As we said good bye to Giovanni, I reached into my pocket and gave him a white string bag. It wasn't anything special, nor did I plan to give him a gift. I simply thought he could have put it to a better use. Giovanni smiled and said, Oh, a gift! Merry Christmas to me! We made less than 20 feet from the porch before being called back. "Hey! The toucans are here!" Oh boy, we must go back to see the toucans! They were such beautiful birds with their vibrant feathers and exaggerated beaks. It made us happy to see them feast on the large bananas. After a photo op, we started to run towards the bus stop. Unfortunately, I had to stop by the hotel next door to use the bathroom. When I hurried back I saw Anna nonchalantly sucking away her cigarette. Just as I was about to say, hey, let's go, Anna said, "I think I'm going to go home now." She gave me a second to comprehend those words and said, "I don't think I want to do anything else here. Seeing those toucans made me really happy and that's a perfect way to end the trip for me. The hotel here has a shuttle to Palmares for $20 and that's a more direct way to get back." "What time is the shuttle?" "It leaves in 10-15 minutes."

I stood there and breathed in second hand smoke, trying to find an appropriate response. I had no dilemma or hesitation. There was no question that I was going to stay and go see the damn volcano we came here to see. The question is, how the heck will I go back? Up to that point I literally had no idea where I was. Despite Anna's numerous attempts to get me to look at a map I simply refused to think about anything after my law school finals. And now, with this sudden change of plan out of nowhere, I wasn't in the mood to think or discuss anything either. Finally I said, "I have to stay to go to the park. Why don't you write down the direction back for me and I'll go back on my own." I could tell Anna was slightly worried about the whole thing and started to apologize for the abruptness as she took out her note book. I heard names of different towns for bus connections in her voice but I wasn't in the mindset to compute, nor did I respond. Please just write them down, I can figure it out later. Then the 8am bus went by. "Oh, I'm so sorry Liren." "It's ok. I'll ask around to see if there's any other way to get to the park." Anna got her bag from the hotel and waited on the side of the road with yet another cigarette. That was the last time I saw her that day.

I was fuming and frustrated. I asked the hotel and different tour companies about transportation to the park. No one had a solution except to take a taxi or sign up for a tour. I hate tours and I can't take a taxi out of principle. I thought about running or walking there but was hesitant because no one seemed to be able to give me a precise distance. The range went between 15 to 25km. I thought to myself, just because I ran a couple of half marathons now I think I can run anywhere, how absurd. Th last thing I want is to be stranded on an unfamiliar road with no sidewalk or shoulder. I tried to call Rose on Skype. No answer. I wrote her a short email to complain. She's the only person who knows both me and Anna. I know she couldn't have helped with the situation except to put me into a better mental state.

A mindful person knows all we have is this life. A wise person knows all we have is this moment. And it takes a bird specialist to know every moment is fleeting. He sat on an rocking chair next to me. I closed my eyes and said, "it's time for bed." "No, I want to sit here and watch you because I will never see you again after tomorrow. You are beautiful just the way you are." I smiled. "I wish you could be my baby." "You could rock me to sleep like a baby." Like that, the hammock swayed into the silence of the night.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Watching the Bananas Ripe

I can't remember when was the last time I slept so well and so long. I worked up until the last minute before I had to catch my flight out of JFK the previous night. I was exhausted by the time Anna and I got back from dinner. We identified Orion's Belt from Anna's front porch before I plopped down on the bed. I listened to the crickets for a couple of minutes and fell fast asleep. Nothing woke me, not the rain, not the dogs or roosters. I didn't get out of bed until almost 10am.
We had no agenda for the day, other than to stop by the market nearby and watch the bananas to ripe. Anna made my first cup of coffee for me. After that I took great pleasure in making coffee with a small burlap sack. I sat on the front porch for a while and took my pants off to enjoy the strong sun. "I have shorts you could borrow." "Why bother." There was nothing on my mind and I didn't mind that.

The market the took place every Friday. We walked down the drive way, over a small dirt hill, and crossed a small highway with traffic. "Just like the mountain lions crossing the freeways outside of L.A." I said. The place was overrun by gringos, both buying and selling. It wasn't big but we took our time walking around. Anna talked to everyone, asking questions and making small conversations with whatever Spanish she knew. I understood every word but had nothing to say. Maybe when it comes to languages I'm more of a spectator rather than a participant. The chicharrón guy was happy to see me. "Chinita!" he exclaimed. It made him even happier when I said hola! and smiled. There was no way for me to walk pass mouthwatering pork fat without getting some to go. That must have made his day. Our trip was fruitful, figuratively and literally. I carried back a pineapple, two papayas, a sack of papas, cebollas, pimientas, jalapenos, queso, yogurt, and ajo.

Even though I hadn't eaten anything all day I wasn't particularly hungry. I was perfectly content just to sit outside again. A bit later I sliced vegetables to the local jazz radio station, Dave Brubeck's Take Five, while Anna browsed the New Yorker and the news on her laptop. You could tell a chief lived here from how sharp the knife is. "Law school enrollment is at an all time low since 1973," Anna read. "How wonderful! Please stop reading before we run into anything terrible" I said. I watched the fatty pieces from the chicharrón sizzle as they greased the pan. The sauteed onion and peppers was nothing special, neither was anything else. That's all I've ever wanted. 

First Night in Costa Rica

I arrived. The connecting flight out of Miami was delayed. At first they announced that the fire sensors for the wheels needed to be repaired. When the repair failed, they decided to fly with the wheels exposed. The pilot assured us that won't be a problem for the 3-hour flight. Then there was further delay, since the inefficiency from the exposed wheels meant more fuel was needed. I'm just glad they topped off on the fuel because planes have been known to drop out of the sky from fuel depletion. Despite a rather hard landing, I have arrived. Anna spotted me as soon as I emerged from crowded exit. She looked radiant in her sundress, white short sleeve linen shirt, and a white sunhat, while I baked in my black REI pants. I insisted on taking buses to her place rather than getting a $30 taxi ride and the bus system was complicated enough that Anna thought it was easier just to meet me at the airport than to try to explain to me and hope I'd get to the right place.

The second bus from San Jose to Atenas was pleasant. The streets lined with small stores and cafeterias soon gave way to mountains and lush vegetation. The breeze felt amazing on my face. We talked for a few minutes. Soon after I realize Anna's eyes were closed I dosed off myself. I woke up when the bus guy snapped the tickets out of my hands. I smiled. He looked young, dark, and hansom in a white polo.

I know nothing about Atenas, other than that it's a small town outside of San Jose with the "best climate in the world" as its claim to fame. There's nothing remarkable here. In fact, you would probably miss it entirely if you blinked as the bus went by. We walked to the supermarket from the bus stop to pick up wine for the dinner gathering tonight and milk for my coffee. Along the way we saw a police DJ under a tent playing bachata music. He was happy to see us. I wished I could ask him for a dance.

We walked 20 minutes to get to Anna's casita only to stayed long enough for me to change into a pair of caprice. Anna called for a taxi and it showed up as soon as she hung up the phone. I was mucho impressed. Anna has assembled a collection of transplants here and developed a fairly active social life. At this point I think anyone's social life is more active than mine. Cathy is a southern lady in flowing colorful clothing with a fairly sizable estate on a hill overlooking more hills. The view at sunset was quite beautiful. The day was an anniversary for her and her partner of 39 years, who had passed away recently. Cathy preoccupies herself with home renovations, transforming a hot tub into a aquarium and building a rock garden. Much more work than I would like but then, I have no idea what it is like to lose a partner of 39 years. 

There were just 4 of us at dinner: Cathy, two New Yorkers, and moi, a recently New Yorker. Conversations about TV shows and a different era completely flew over my head. I don't think I even activated my vocal chord except to comment on how delicious the burger was.

The temperature dropped a bit at night. I sat close to the fire pit and watched the stars above. It was extraordinary in the sense that nothing was extraordinary.

Friday, December 5, 2014


Another day went by where I didn't speak to anyone. Is it by choice? I don't know. I long for conversations over warm beverages but I can't think of anyone I really want to talk to. I live in a beautiful apartment in a beautiful part of the city. As long as I remain inside, I'm never going to see anyone other than the delivery man.

Maybe this is why I feel relieved to travel in foreign lands or hike in the mountains or run in the park, alone. Non verbal activities don't require excuses for silence.

I treated myself to a movie tonight. Wild. I read the book two years ago. That's when I started fantasizing about hiking the PCT myself. By now I've read a bunch of other books on the PCT and hiking, some personal accounts some technical. I gathered gears for Peru and now Nepal. One of these days I'm going to finally get a tent and get on the trail on my own.

Some people can watch things from the sideline and feel content from being entertained. I watch people play concerts, run marathons, hike thousands of miles, go to law school, become single moms, and I think to myself, sure, I can do that. Maybe I'm just a pompous asshole. Maybe I just need to meet my match.

As I walked home in the rain, I saw a young couple kissing at the corner of my street, 72nd and Columbus. I wish I had someone to kiss. But the truth is, I had many people to kiss. I pushed everyone away. One by one, however painful, I let them go.

The thing is, how would I know when I've found it if I don't know what I'm looking for?

Still, someday soon, I will be on that trail. If Cheryl can do it, so can I. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014