Duplicate Airbnb in France: the perils of hitchhiking

     Hello from France! Before we begin, do you know the best French song ever? I have it right here for you! How convenient! It is by Les Rita Mitsouko and it is called “Marcia Baila“. Without exaggeration I have watched this video over 100 times since I was told about it last week, it’s so good. Let’s call it the indisputable apex of French culture:

     I had a long, crazy day hitchhiking from up in the Swiss alps down to the French plains. The end of the story is that I have found myself in a destination I didn’t intend, Strasbourg, France, sleeping with two attractive twenty-year-old French girls named Chloe and Anais (of course!) who wish they had English-speaking boyfriends.
     Just getting to Strasbourg seemed improbable. At dusk a young French guy dropped me off in a wretchedly bad spot well off the highway because his GPS told him to. I swear, almost no one knows how to work their GPS, and I am in a lot of cars. Fiddling with the GPS while driving has to cause more accidents than being on the phone as it requires more concentration. Worse, a generation of people are losing their sense of direction in their capitulation to GPS. I will now step down from my soapbox.
     So there I was in a gloomy village south of Strasbourg in the approaching dark. I didn’t know where to stand to try and continue because no place was safe from the swift traffic. Walking up or back down the road looked pointless. I saw no evidence of a bus service. I didn’t know what to do, so I practiced yelling French obscenities. After that was exhausted, I stood next to the road, lost, and for some reason inexplicable except that once in a blue moon the travel gods smile down on us hitchhikers, there was a lull in the traffic and a guy in a BMW stopped in the middle of the street and motioned for me. I wasn’t even standing with my thumb out.
     He was a Moroccan-Frenchman named Said and he saved my hitchhiking butt. He was getting off work and for reasons I never understood, he stopped in the middle of the road and offered me a ride. He took me to the Strasbourg train station though it might not have been his destination. He was pleasantly surprised to have a Californian in his car, showing off the American music on his iPod. He loved American music, he said, though he couldn’t understand a word of it.

strasbourg gare

     Strasbourg train station the next morning, a modern facade over the grand old architecture. Does it work?


     The beginning of the story—I’ll make it quick; sorry to jump around. Think of it as Pulp Fiction for hitchhiking—is that Roof-san left me at the end of the village in Les Diablerets, we man-hugged to say goodbye, and before he was able to turn his car around, a Spaniard had stopped for me. I always like that validation of hitchhiking where friends can bear witness. What I am glad he didn’t witness is that I got stuck at the bottom of the hill in Aigle where some cars stopped, but they weren’t going my way, and it ended up being a long and slow slog getting out of Switzerland. Standing in the steady drizzle didn’t help.
     It was a funny coincidence that a few days ago I visited a friend in Zurich who was about to visit Salvador, Brazil, and then when I hitchhiked out of Zurich I got a ride with a guy whose wife is from Salvador, Brazil. Then yesterday Roof-san played his band’s song, “Mauritius Girl” and then I got a ride from two Mauritius girls—women, I should say—along with a husband, from Basel up past Colmar, deep into the Alsace region.
     I don’t know France well. I have been to Germany countless times, but France is largely terra incognito for me. At the highway gas station there weren’t many cars, and most ignored me with gusto, so between cars I soaked in my rural, bucolic surroundings. If I had to describe France in one word, it would be languid. I just looked it up and I am using the word wrong, but the land has a lazy, time-worn, sensual, unhurried feel to it. Maybe bucolic is the best word. The feel is almost hypnotic.
     The Mauritians led me to the young French guy afflicted with GPS Syndrome to Moroccan Said to sleeping with two French girls. I guess I should clarify my prepositions. I slept with two French girls in the same dorm room. See? Not an A-level story. Everyone thinks that because I travel a lot, the road is nothing but kicks, man, like it’s all one long Jack Kerouac novel. It is just as often hitchhiking in the rain and sleeping fitfully in squeaky dorm beds.
hands in flour

     This bakery is called, “The hands in the flour”. On principle alone I had to get something, and I devoured a wicked torsade. Usually I stay away from torsades as they are too dry, but I am in France now.


     My destination was Nancy, a random town I picked because I had never been, it was close to the wedding this weekend, and I found a cheap Airbnb place I had paid two nights for. But once in Strasbourg I learned I missed the last train to Nancy. I checked Eurolines for a bus and blablacar.com for a ride, but I ended up stuck in Strasbourg. On a whim I checked Airbnb (thank you free train station wifi!) and was shocked to see 49 listings under $20 in the heart of the city. The vast majority are from Tom’s, where I paid only $12 plus a persnickety Airbnb fee of 15% or so. Normally on Airbnb when you make a booking the host has 24 hours to get back to you, but if they have dozens of listings, I knew they’d be very quick to respond, and he needed only 10 minutes or so. Tom’s Fair House is partly a hostel, but with so many properties, I didn’t grasp the whole operation and I wasn’t curious enough to ask questions.
     I didn’t mind paying for two cheap Airbnb places for the same night since it was due to my own inefficiency, but the point of the story is to not assume cheap accommodation options don’t exist in big cities. Options that include pretty French girls are rarer, yes, but you never know, which is one of the main points of traveling, the serendipity.
french hitch sign

     A hitchhiking sign my Airbnb host in Nancy made for me to use tomorrow.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

The people you meet hitchhiking in Switzerland

     Seven months on the road as of today.
     Greetings from Switzerland where I am visiting old friends, all of whom I met in Asia while traveling. Every time I visit friends in Switzerland or most anywhere in Europe but acutely so here, it feels like a seminar in how to live. Most everyone I know has a life to be emulated: the way they eat, the use of their free time, their progressive attitudes that inform their actions and a long list of small day-to-day things that appear insignificant on the surface but aren’t in my eyes. Traveling is hardly conducive to any of it.

sri lanka hitchhike

     If you think the only people who pick me up hitchhiking are greasy truck drivers, think again. This Sri Lankan beauty took me from Zurich to the first highway gas station.
     At that station, another attractive woman in a sporty BMW convertible said she could take me to the next town. I declined, saying I wanted to go farther to the next highway gas station, but I paused to look everything over and said, “I can’t believe I’m not going with you!” She said, incredulous, “I know!”


     I have always had pretty good luck hitchhiking in Switzerland, though this headline I saw yesterday gave me pause for thought: “Two men arrested over Yverdon hitchhiker death”. Gulp.
     Hitchwiki, the information exchange board for places to start hitchhiking, has too many entries for Switzerland that start with something like, “Technically it’s an illegal spot, but if the police don’t see you…” No way. I have been hounded by Swiss police too many times. There is no crime in ultra-rich Switzerland (other than the usual FIFA-style white collar crime and the occasional hitchhiker slaying) so the police have nothing better to do than check up on us. Once in Liechtenstein next door I had a police car make a hard stop and two guys burst out of the car demanding to see my passport. When I reached for my pocket, they flinched, and their hands moved towards their guns. When they inspected the passport, looking back and forth between it and my face, one finally said to the other, “It’s not him,” and they sped off.
gstaad parking

     I thought a quintessential Swiss photo of soaring mountain peaks, lush vegetation, and dramatic vistas would be apropos here, but instead I give you this, a Gstaad parking receipt. You’re welcome.


     The water in Switzerland is hard, so I have to use lotion after showering or my legs look like the California desert. Sometimes in places with not much traffic I get out my lotion and quickly try and use it before the next car is in sight, otherwise it must look strange to oncoming motorists. I always try and imagine the conversations in cars when they see me, usually between the man driving and the woman in the passenger seat:
     Man: What the hell is that guy doing?
     Woman: Moisturizing! Let’s pick him up.
     Man: Hell no! Americans are such freaks.
The Mercenary
     About 30km outside of Basel I had a too-short ride with a fascinating guy, a heavily tattooed, burly ox with a neck as thick as my thighs. He described himself in German as a professional soldier, a mercenary. He was an ethnic Albanian, the third time in three days an Albanian picked me up. (They are always male drivers and when I tell them the only Albanian word I know is “shpirtim” (my sweetheart), there is always an awkward two seconds.)
     He had fought in Iraq, which he said was a picnic compared to Afghanistan. He had been to Afghanistan three times during the worst of the war, fighting the Taliban from five meters away in Tora Bora. (He said the Taliban will never disappear unless you nuke all of them at once; they are so dedicated and fervent in their ideology that there will always be replacements for any that are killed.)
     He made $1300 a day, money too good to pass up for a guy made homeless and penniless by the Kosovo war. He had survived it all, now living the good life in Switzerland. He supported his entire extended family and was now bored, but with a wife and kids, his fighting days were behind him.
     He had fought along side the French Legionnaires, too. I asked him what percent of the Legionnaires are French, and he guessed two percent. Many come from Eastern Europe, a surprising amount come from Vietnam, Nepal and other impoverished countries, and everyone seemed to get paid on a sliding scale depending on how prosperous or poor your country was.
     He saw horrific things, as one would guess. I didn’t prod him for war stories, but he was adamant that the media grossly under-reported American casualties in Afghanistan.
isis cafe

     The Taliban can’t be contained and the Islamic State (called ISIS in USA) is opening internet cafes in Salzburg, Austria.


lauenensee

     OK, OK, I will give you a classic Swiss photo, this being the Lauenensee near Gstaad.


diablerets view

     Just one more nice photo, and then that’s it! Here is Les Diablerets, the view from my friends’ holiday home in the alps. This hardly captures the expansive 180-degree view.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION
     In Europe I almost always hitchhike with an American flag on my backpack for the novelty value. There are very few hitchhikers these days, and just about zero American hitchhikers. Sometimes drivers tell me they pick me up for that reason, such as the guy near Berlin who was wearing a University of Georgia cap. In spite of this, usually drivers don’t put one and one together and are surprised when I tell them I am Californian. I would hitchhike with a California flag if I thought it was recognizable.
     I should add this nugget of info on Hitchwiki: if you want to hitchhike north out of Bern, go to the Wankdorf Stadium with tram 9, walk north to the highway entrance another 100-200 meters and it’s golden. The second vehicle stopped for me, a Berliner in a camper van. (A few days later I found myself at the same spot—in the rain—and I got a ride in 10-15 minutes.) Almost any ride will be good as the Grauholz highway gas station is only about 5km away.
     BlaBlaCar is still the way to go if you want to try rideshare in Central Europe—and there is no reason not to try rideshare. Switzerland is stratospherically expensive. The train to get out of the city center to the closest highway to hitchhike can be more expensive than a rideshare between towns.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+.

Sweet Mother Russia, Take Me Into Your Bosom!

tegelberg

     On Tegelberg near Neuschwanstein Castle in southern Germany. That’s me in the middle.


     I have been away for over six months now. “Away” is a complicated word because what I am away from other than the country of my passport? In any case, I have been away from my country for over half a year for every single year of my life since I graduated from university in 1986. That’s an accomplishment, if you see it as such, or a nightmarish existence, depending on your point of view.
     I thought of a big Russia trip while the summer warmth is here and then next year maybe a rough Africa overland thing to top off my traveling life before I “retire”—transition!—to herding llamas in New Zealand or whatever it is that people with normal lives do.
schwangau view

     View from Tegelberg down to Schwangau.


     I applied for a Russian visa in Munich, Germany. This is 2015 but the visa process is straight out of 1973. You need to show prepaid hotels, a support letter from a Russian agency, and the application is lengthy. (My favorite question: list all the countries you have visited in the past ten years.) It takes ten business days and costs 150 euros plus a 27 euro processing fee, but it is a three year multiple entry visa and whereas it says on the website that you can only stay for thirty days at a time, the woman in the office said I could stay much longer since it is “special for Americans.”
     I should have known something was up when I heard that. Why would Russia do something “special for Americans” in these days of frosty tensions?
     I got the call the next day. My visa was rejected. They wouldn’t say why. They won’t refund the 177 euros either. (USA also does this to foreigners; the visa fee is nonrefundable regardless of outcome.)
     I was stunned. Why would they do this? I can’t recall ever being denied a visa. For my amusement I used to pop by Iranian and North Korean embassies around the world just to see what they’d say about giving me visas, but I don’t remember ever being outright rejected after applying.
cabin drop

     One false step, and boom!


Why Russia?
     I have only been to Russia once. It was in the mid-1990s, and it was rough, but also fascinating and unforgettable. I distinctly remember being hungry all the time. Loneliness and frustration levels were constantly sky high, yet few countries have been etched into my soul of rich travel experiences like Russia.
     Russians have a depth about them that I find very attractive. They can be taciturn and are hardly the type to exclaim, “How’s it going! I’m Boris! Damn glad to meet ya!” Their qualities are similar to what draws me to Hungarians, which I experienced as an English teacher in the provinces eons ago. I imagine Russia to be a more intense version of Hungary.
     I’d love to get out in the vast sticks of Russia to visit Couchsurfers in places few people go, to experience the real Mother Russia, and then get out three seconds after it turns cold.
     I might try for a visa one more time in another country. We’ll see. I dread checking “YES” on the box where it asks if I have ever been refused a visa for Russia, which could be a scarlet letter.
est

     This toilet photo (still my website’s most popular page) was what I experienced just before crossing into Russia from Estonia. I am very curious to see it again, though decrepit toilet re-visitation isn’t something one should say out loud.


Death to Travelex!
     Every once in a while I feel compelled to remind everyone that Travelex is the devil. Travelex is a chain of moneychangers that have ridiculous exchange rates. The business model is to have captive audiences at airports, and I very partially understand that they are being charged a lot to have a service at the airport, though perhaps this is in order to ensure a monopoly position, which is something no self-respecting airport should allow, though few can resist the temptation. Singapore’s Changi Airport is the role model for travelers on many fronts and, if I am not mistaken, they ensure that airport exchange rates are the same as downtown rates.
     The whole idea of an airport not as a public service but a cash cow boils my travel blood, but airports are often privatized, so does that negate the idea that it is a public service? Maybe I have an outdated, misguided, entitled, privileged view that fliers shouldn’t be fleeced by $5 bottles of water and absurd exchange rates.
     I publicly scorned Travelex on Twitter and had this exchange:


     I was confident of having the last word because Travelex knows they are in the business of deception.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Trekking tips from the insta-expert in Langtang, Nepal

     NOTE: I flew out from Nepal twelve hours before the big earthquake and I left the Langtang National Park about three days earlier. I started three blog posts before I left: a fluffy one about Kathmandu, a big one about trekking in Langtang and this one with some lightweight ruminations and practical information about the trek. While it feels trivial to write about traveling in Nepal since there is so much desperation and suffering in the aftermath, I decided to put these blog posts up anyway for myself, for my own memory.

tims card

     If you have a bunch of 15-year-old visa photos laying around, bring them to Nepal. You need one or two for a visa, one or two for this TIMS card, which is a permit to hike, and one for each SIM card you want to get. No one cares if they are old as long as they look vaguely like you.
     The TIMS card is 2000 rupees and then the Langtang admission fees are about 3300 rupees. It grinds on me that foreigners pay over $50 in fees to do the main treks with little to show for it. If it was evident the money is being used to benefit these far-flung communities, that would be different.


     It might seem insensitive at worst and crazy at best to talk about trekking in Langtang, but I have a feeling they will rebuild and subsequently be eager for travelers. A guy sent me this link about the “Ground Realities of April 25 Earthquake in Nepal” to point out that the devastation and untold numbers of upended lives are very real, but the entire country isn’t under rubble.
     At the time I gave little thought before I went to Langtang. I was deciding between the Langtang and Everest Base Camp treks and I chose the one closer to Kathmandu. My only regret in not trekking Everest is that Everest might become too expensive to do in the future. Everest must be great, but the name “Everest”, like Timbuktu and Zanzibar, has an inordinate grasp on the imagination. If it was called Scunthorpe Base Camp or Pacoima Base Camp, I suspect there’d be a smidge less interest. I could be wrong. If Mt. Scunthorpe was the tallest peak in the world, I suppose we’d all want to go.
syabru besi jeep

     Whoever said, “Getting there is half the fun” has never set foot in Nepal. I love being in Nepal, but I despise traveling in Nepal. I took the most luxurious transport possible to go to Syabru Besi from Kathmandu, a cramped jeep, and it was still horrendous. It’s also a reason people combine the Langtang trek with the Helambu trek: you can walk back almost all the way to Kathmandu and avoid Hell Road.


     I am in better shape than I look from ALL appearances, but I am not an avid hiker. It isn’t fun to go by myself. However, I like going by myself in Nepal. There are a lot of people on the trails. It’s never boring. I might become an avid hiker if it wasn’t so dang cold. Is there such a thing as a warm mountain?
     I might be unrecognizable to you on a mountain. When I first start chugging up the hill, it’s immediately tiring, but for some inexplicable reason a metamorphosis occurs and I go from being a gassed-out schlub to Grandmaster Alpinist. It’s fast in coming. I quickly become stronger, I look better, and at the end of a trek I feel in tremendous condition. By the time I get back to town, I have lost weight and have a healthy sheen, which explains the innumerable girls of all races, colors, and religions throwing themselves at me.
plants wood frame

     Seen at Thulo Syabru


     I saw surprisingly few trekkers like me on their own without guide or porter. There is zero reason to have a guide unless you expect your guide to educate you about everything you see. You certainly don’t need a guide to show you the way. Also, you can be sure the guide is taking you to places to eat and sleep where it suits him/her best, not you. An argument I’ve heard is that someone is there in case you get hurt, but then what? I don’t think the guide will do more to help you than anyone at a guest house, but I might be completely wrong.
     Do you need a porter?
     No.
     If you aren’t convinced, then what is the maximum weight you are willing to carry every day? You really don’t need to bring much with you, as I will explain. Everyone says this, and we all nod in agreement, and then we bring conga drums, 15 rolls of toilet paper and “War and Peace” in hardcover. It’s when we get a few days into the trek and we notice we haven’t used all of the stuff we brought when we start to question our choices.
trek shoes

     Yes, I do stand like this. While these are hardly trekking shoes, your average porter wears something much less appropriate and are often in sandals or flip flops.


trek menu

     This is a typical menu from the trek. Can you read it? (US$1 = 99 rupees.) The odd thing is that two or three days deeper into the mountains the prices are nearly the same. Within villages prices are fixed, but there is wiggle room, especially for the room and things like a solar/gas shower or power for charging devices.


dal baht

     Dal baht, we meet again. This is the one and really only meal Nepalis eat: lentils, rice and “curry” that is often just potatoes with some pickled vegetables and a papadam. I like it, and I have a tremendous capacity to eat the same food over and over, but after a week dal baht tested me.


     I’ve got something to say about water. I bought a package of fifty iodine pills for only 150 rupees, each pill good for one liter. The aftertaste isn’t as strong as I remembered so maybe they are improving the recipe. On the trek several guest houses claim to have filtered water, but I was wary. I saw a shack on the trail that had a water machine with a built-in filter. I asked how often they change the filter and they happily said it was only necessary every four years. Call me skeptical.
     I have good reason to be wary. My first time in Nepal I was lackadaisical about water and I came down with giardia. Let me sum up giardia in two words: explosive diarrhea. (You’re welcome.) It is so unforgettably brutal that it isn’t worth risking your stomach to save a few rupees by trusting your innards to anyone else. You have too much to lose. Also, portable filters have come way down in price, making them an attractive alternative.
stupa section

     Also seen at Thulo Syabru.


     Packing ideas
     If your backpack gets wet it’s a good idea to have some bags to keep the things on the inside dry. I have an impressive collection of plastic bags from around the world. (Is this a good time to mention that I am single, or would that be redundant?)
     Simply, bring an extra complete set of clothes. It isn’t as bad as it sounds to wear the same clothes day after day as long as they stay dry. There are stoves in almost every guest house at dinner time where you can hang wet things. (I avoided small guest houses for this reason; I didn’t want them to waste wood to start the stove just for my benefit.)
     1 poncho/raincoat in bag (never used)
     1 phone for a flashlight (I didn’t bring a flashlight, then later remembered it is on my cellphone. When it is after dark and you want to use the toilet down the hall, a light is handy.)
     1 sunglasses (the sun at altitude and the brightness of snow is intense.
     2 plastic water bottles
     1 small towel
     1 fleece neck warmer
     4 socks
     5 underwear
     2 zip-off gender-appropriate lightweight pants that turn into shorts (I am always amazed at how many people hike in jeans. They’re heavy and take forever to dry. I guess those people never take them off so it isn’t an issue.)
     1 fleece pants (a borderline bring, but they are pretty light. They are better for the evenings and for the sleeping bag if it is especially cold.)
     4 shirts (2 cotton, 2 not)
     1 fleece, then given another plus a long-sleeve shirt
     1 cap with bill against sunburn
     1 knit cap that covers the ears
     1 windbreaker (I was lucky to get away with bringing mesh running shoes and a windbreaker in lieu of a real jacket. My windbreaker had a patch for the Cuban Red Cross that I got in, um, Haiti (what’s the statute of limitations on—never mind) but it had the effect of some Nepalis getting wide-eyed and asking with hope or expectation that I am doctor.)
langtang trek room

     Nearly every room is exactly the same on the trek. I only think about warmth. When I check out a room I wave my hands slowly by the window frames and doors to feel the gaps for drafts, but they come from everywhere. I can’t be the only sissy who would pay more for something more airtight.


     For the Annapurna trek I did a few years ago I rented a sleeping bag at 50 rupees a day, I think it was. Renting isn’t a crazy idea even if you accept that the bags really aren’t cleaned between uses rather than just aired out. I claim that the sleeping bags don’t get dirty from sweat, just a light grime. It’s manageable. (What am I saying? I am losing my mind, but I am almost done.)
     This time I bought one for 1700 rupees, but having a sleeping bag at all might have been a mistake. You really don’t need one on the Langtang trek unless maybe it is the highest of high seasons (Sept/Oct) because every guest house I saw always had extra blankets. They are of questionable hygiene, but often you are of equally questionable hygiene. (Wait, I am countering my own argument, but the end is near.) The blankets are super-heavy for some reason and two of them feels like a sumo wrestler laying on top of you—not that I have experienced that personally. Let’s move on.
     You also really don’t need to bring food. I met a girl who carried 12 Snickers, which are a sort of food currency on the trail, but that’s too much weight and Snickers don’t cost a whole lot more up the mountain than back in town.
eating dung

     When the Snickers run out, sometimes a light snack of dried cow dung really hits the spot. When not providing The Dromomaniac with sustenance, it’s used to fire the stoves.


     Hot tip: Nepali cell phone credit goes a long way. I got a SIM card for only $2 and to call a USA landline is pennies. If you are leaving Nepal and still have a lot of credit on your phone, if Ncell is your provider, you can donate your excess credit (up to about 500 rupees a day) by transferring it to another subscriber for nearly free. I forget the code to do it. It may be only a few hundred rupees to you, but to a Nepali it is a very useful and welcome gift.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Trekking 4000+ meters in Langtang, Nepal without a jacket

     NOTE: I flew out from Nepal twelve hours before the big earthquake and I left the Langtang area about three days earlier. I started three blog posts before I left: a fluffy one about Kathmandu, this long one about trekking in Langtang and another about practical information doing the trek. While it feels trivial to write about traveling in Nepal since there is so much desperation and suffering in the aftermath, I decided to put these blog posts up anyway for myself, for my own memory. I have an epilogue with some updated information at the end. If you have some new info, please share it!

kyanjin town snow view

     Call me crazy, but I think this looks very pretty.


     If I may start by going all granola on you for a moment, there’s something to be said for being amidst such awesome nature where you can see the lay of the land where you have walked all day. Your relationship to the environment around you is intensified—or, in my case, you simply wake up to that fact.
     I sat on my balcony in Thulo Syabru, a village sitting on a ridge, and saw the entire day’s walk unfold in front of me: I went steeply up from that river, then along that mountain face, crossed over that looks-tiny-from-here bridge, and came through the terraced land to get up here. I think about this small chunk of land I covered and wonder about all the other chunks of land I have yet to see and how they interconnect. It demonstrates that the resonance of a trek like this is the reason it becomes the highlight of anyone’s world trip and why we travelers return again and again to Nepal.
     That’s my last deep thought, don’t worry.
langtang trekking map

     My trek was about a week. I basically only did Langtang: Syabru Besi up to Kyanjin Gompa where I took a wrong turn trying to climb Kyanjin Ri, and then I backtracked a little and walked out on a new-ish route via Thulo Syabru to the road at Thulo Bharku which is before Dhunche and not on this map. I didn’t go over Gosainkund and down through Helambu because of the weather and the time. (If I did, it appears I would have been right at the pass at Laurebinayak during the earthquake.) I read that it is 31km to walk from Syabru Besi to Kyanjin Gompa, but can that be true?


     I wanted to get out of Kathmandu before Nepali New Year began, so I had one day to get a permit and everything I needed. I dutifully got trekking pants and iodine pills, but I left it until the end to think about real shoes or a real jacket. When I did the Annapurna trek I was also in a hurry and I somehow bought a giant woman’s jacket. This time I accidentally bought giant woman’s pants which matched nicely with my absurdly inadequate mesh running shoes and windbreaker.
     At Syabru Besi, the starting point, I thought of my friend Stephen, who is still my friend despite insisting that I didn’t need a jacket at 4000 meters. Syabru Besi is just under 2000 meters, and I was freezing already. I didn’t see anything to buy in the village, so I started the trek anyway, hinging all my hopes on dry, mellow weather.
lama hotel lapka

     I made it to a place called Lama Hotel, which is not a hotel, but a settlement of small hotels, and stayed at Lama Guest House. What I didn’t know about this trek was that the communities from Syabru Besi to about Lama Hotel are mostly ethnic Tamang, while from Lama Hotel up to Kyanjin Gompa it is largely Tibetan. (As the raven flies, Kyanjin Gompa is only about 5km from Tibet.) The Tamang and especially the Tibetans, I also discovered, have a quick wit and a keen sense of humor.
     This firecracker of a woman running the place, Lapka, asked how much credit was on my phone because she wanted to make some calls in exchange for charging it. She also wanted a little boy to play games on it, which he did with gusto by just randomly clicking buttons. I didn’t think anything of it but saw later that he tried to call Denmark.


     I was freezing at Lama Hotel even in the relative warmth of the afternoon. I dreaded going higher and asked a father and son tandem coming down if I could buy a fleece or a long-sleeve shirt from them. Mark and Reed from Bellingham, Washington gave me just what I needed and refused payment. I, in return, gave away my treasured Chinese coconut sunflower seeds (the one product we can’t seem to import from China) but I don’t think they got the better of the deal.
14 year old bamboo girl

     It’s not every day, nor every other day, that a 14-year-old girl asks me to marry her. It started as the ingratiating patter of a salesgirl who wanted me to sponsor her schooling, though it does belie the fact that Nepal is a desperately impoverished country. I heard a couple of stories of foreigners who have trekked up here and found themselves marrying local girls. Even if the stories are apocryphal, it enables the dream of being whisked off to the perceived riches of the West.
     I often get people trying to matchmake for me in developing countries and even several times on this trek, but it still came as a surprise to hear her lower her voice and earnestly start telling me that it’s OK for us to get married despite the big difference in our ages.
     I was slow to the gravity of her words but struck by her seriousness. I asked, “Why do you want to get married to me?”
     She replied, “Because the sky is high.”
     I tried to catch up to the fact that I was having a grown-up conversation with this young girl. I said, “The sky is high? What do you mean?”
     She gave an enigmatic, beyond-her-years smile and repeated, “Because the sky is high.”
     Usually I am quick to digest unusual situations but I was dumbstruck. We talked more, but she became embarrassed and wanted to change the subject. I suggested she marry a guy closer to her age someday, but she just wanted to stop talking about it and said unconvincingly, “I will fulfill your wishes.”


     At lower elevations my timing was perfect: the rhododendrons, Nepal’s national flower, were in full bloom. Big bursts of white, red, and pinks almost made up for the fact that nearly the entire trail is covered in horse/donkey/yak/buffalo dung. No one ever mentions that for most of the Langtang trek you are tiptoeing around dung.
     Though the national park is called Langtang and the biggest village is Langtang, it’s the next place, Kyanjin Gompa, that’s the magic—if you have clear skies. In Langtang I bought yak cheese and visited a doctor at an Aussie clinic to ask how much I can ascend in one day before I put myself at altitude sickness, and just beyond I saw an enormous, magnificent griffon vulture.
     You don’t really see the best of the Langtang trek until you are at Kyanjin Gompa, the last settlement. This is a video of me being overenthusiastic about my surroundings after a night of snow. I don’t see much snow and mountains in my follow-the-sun life. Cut me some slack.

dorje bakery

     When I first laid eyes upon Kyanjin Gompa, in front of me was a building with DORJE BAKERY written on the roof. I made a beeline there, walked straight into kitchen, passing the “Do Not Enter” sign I didn’t notice, and saw Lhakpa next to his oven— with a six-burner stove!—surrounded by cakes. Lhakpa said he carried the oven for seven days with two other guys all the way from Syabru Besi.


tibetan sourdough bread

     Lhakpa said an American showed him how to make sourdough bread using the local whole wheat. He calls it Tibetan sour peasant bread and it is life-affirming. Lhakpa might be something of a local tycoon, mainly for selling his sublime cakes, pies and bread. I must have spent enough to send his kids to boarding school in Switzerland. He has ambitious plans, first of which is to build a sauna.


     Dorje Bakery is like a community center. It’s the only food business on the entire trek that I saw that isn’t a guest house as well, which causes problems because when you pay for your room (or get it free, in fact) the deal is that you eat dinner and breakfast there, too.
     In the bakery I met a 20-year-old Canadian girl from Revelstoke named Jenna. She decided on a whim to go up to Kyanjin Ri, which is over three hours round trip, but she was leaving without carrying anything—no sunscreen, no hat to protect her from the intense sun, nor any water (“I can eat snow!”) That’s hardcore. That might also be dangerously irresponsible.
kc kyanjin view

     I got lost going above Kyanjin Gompa trying to get up to the viewpoint at Kyanjin Ri, so I can only estimate that the highest I got on the trip was about 4200 meters, which is about 14,000 feet. I’ve been higher. On the Annapurna Circuit I was at 5400 meters. The second highest was probably near the Chile/Bolivia border at 4900 meters and the third highest I’ve been was a long weekend in Amsterdam in 2002. (The joke that never gets old!)


kc kyanjin gompa

     I decided to head out from Kyanjin Gompa in this beautiful weather. Right after this photo was taken I took three steps and fell on my butt. I turned around and waited for the snow to melt more, taking refuge in the bakery with an almond cake.


hilltop diki

     Diki, I’m sorry I’m using this horrible photo of you! It is the only one I have! Since I wasn’t in a hurry and I had the wrong shoes for inclement weather, I stopped when it rained, and I found myself stuck with gregarious Diki at her place in Chyamki, Hilltop Lodge which is about an hour before Langtang village.
     I suppose that the line between haves and have nots in the mountains is whether or not you live on a major tourist trekking trail, but I imagine everyone has a hardscrabble life whether you are dependent on tourists for the few short months of high season or not, so I didn’t bargain hard for anything. While I was inside warming myself by the stove, Diki was out gardening in the biting rain. Does the $2 or $3 I’d save by bargaining mean more to her or me?
     Look at our burnt faces. High elevation will do this. I brought two tubes of sunscreen but was lax about using it—and I didn’t think of leaving my extra with them on the way down. I tell you, I’m as dumb as a doorknob sometimes.


     At Hilltop Lodge I met a nice and sweet Israeli couple who also stayed put for the day and we hung out for a long afternoon of good conversation by the fire in the restaurant. They were very kind, inquisitive, and gentle and I am belaboring the point because Israelis have a fierce reputation for being what I call scorched earth travelers; when they pass through they leave a trail of destruction and bad feelings in their wake.
     Some guest houses refuse Israeli travelers altogether. I heard that on the Annapurna Circuit it is quite common. A local told me that Israelis sometimes don’t pay their porters in full when they arrive, which, if true, is the ultimate sin. Porters are the unsung heroes of the mountains, without whom nothing would exist.
     Such is the Israelis’ reputation that when I was in Dorje Bakery one morning and saw a guy cooking noodles on a portable stove in the middle of the wood floor, I assumed he was Israeli, because that’s chutzpah. He was French. (Another local told me that the French are the new Israelis.) After he was done cooking he found time to insult the owners when he saw that they were less than happy about it, though they didn’t say a word. He also loudly held forth with his friends that dal baht shouldn’t cost more than 400 rupees (US$1 = 99 rupees) in Langtang, though rice and lentils have to be carried up and firewood isn’t cheap. I’d like to see him carry it all up. I hope in his next life he’s a porter, the bastard.
     However, let me say for the record that all but this one French guy and all the Israelis that I actually interacted with were kind people, not one mass murderer among them. I should also say that I didn’t demand to see ID from the jackass. For all I know he could be Swiss or Quebecois, so I, as a typical peace-loving American, am just here to recklessly perpetuate stereotypes.
big load porters

     Look at some of these loads the porters have to carry, often in flip flops. It’s remarkable to think that EVERYTHING has to be schlepped up the mountain on the backs of these supermen and women. That’s a rough life and one I’d guess few would choose if they had other options. It’s especially sad to see women and gray-haired men on the trails. It’s sad to see anyone doing it, especially in places where there are donkeys or roads.


     The Israelis had a guide. He told me that he was going to be marrying a German woman in three months. He was part of a rescue team that saved her during last year’s Annapurna disaster and in her appreciation she said she would marry him. He didn’t seem to want to get married, but accepted that his life would improve and was going along with it.
     I imagine that my first marriage will happen that way: “Dude, thanks for performing the Heimlich maneuver on me. I shouldn’t have eaten that 56th steamed buffalo momo. Let’s get married. Neither one of us is gay, but in California it’s OK. Come on, before I change my mind.”
bridge to langtang

     One of several bridges on the trek. My camera sucks.


     A big change is coming to Kyanjin Gompa: electricity. For now it is all solar, but a Hong Kong philanthropist named Michael Kadoorie is allegedly going to bring inexpensive electricity in three months. He built a bridge like the one above six months ago. When I asked a local why he was being generous to Nepal when there are other poor places in the world such as India, I was cut short. “India is rich!” he snapped. “Nepal is poor!”
     The coming electricity should mean people will use less firewood for their adobe stoves. A man in Kyanjin Gompa explained to me that to get a bushel of firewood delivered—about 12 good-sized pieces—costs 400 rupees but then you are obligated to feed the porter dal baht (rice and lentils) twice and give him raksi, the local distilled firewater. By then, the cost has risen to over 1000 rupees. He was looking forward to electricity.
     Lhakpa in Dorje Bakery doesn’t think electricity is going to be a big deal, but I told him if I come back this time next year, the sign on the roof will be blinking in neon and Xmas lights and a casino will be downstairs. He said he intended to build his own hotel—five hotels are already being built; lots of heavy rebar is being carried up at 9000 rupees per porter—but he was grappling with providing wifi. He said most travelers tell him they don’t want wifi, preferring the ambiance without, but I said those people are either lying or old and few can resist it. I was content without it, but I’m old. And I’m lying. Lama Guest House had a laptop hooked up to a battery and kids were watching horrible TV shows, destroying the mood.
ganesh himal view

     Ganesh Himal mountain range from Thulo Syabru. Just look at that! This is looking westward at the start of the Tamang Heritage Trail, which piques my interest to do next time. When the weather is clear in Thulo Syabru you can see three dramatic mountain ranges.


     I pushed myself too hard coming down the mountain. I didn’t rest enough. I am not good at pacing and I overexerted myself to stay in lockstep with a porter. Never mind that he was carrying two large gas tanks on his back and texting as he descended steeply. After hours and hours my knees became spaghetti as I stumbled into a settlement called Bamboo. I was so exhausted I slept over eight straight hours, a great rarity, which probably hasn’t happened since that Amsterdam weekend (rimshot!)
ganesh view

     The view from Ganesh Himal Hotel in Thulo Syabru. The weather was so clear I stayed a second day for no reason other than to stare at this all day.


     In Thulo Syabru I met an Aussie guy named Tyrone who had been in the mountains for two weeks, starting his walk from downtown Kathmandu. He was so tired of not having fruit that he walked two hours down and two and a half hours and 1000 vertical meters up just to go to town and buy a bunch of bananas! He said he spends $10 a day on the trail, always negotiating a free room in exchange for eating dinner there, but not breakfast, which is usually part of the deal. He had no immediate intention on leaving the mountains, and I could see where he was coming from; I regretted returning to Kathmandu minutes after I got back.
terraced mountain view

     Do you know how much work it is to turn a mountain into endless terraces like this just so you can grow crops? It’s unbelievable. Philippines and Indonesia are known for this to grow rice, which is always spectacular, but the scale of the terracing done in Nepal is unbelievable. I wonder if it is good or bad in an earthquake.


thulo bharku view

     Right at the end of the trek, I took a newer, less traveled path (I saw one person on it the entire morning) to go from Thulo Syabru to Thulo Bharku in the middle of this photo, which is on the road between Syabru Besi and Dhunche. I got a ride hitchhiking with the first vehicle that passed to Dhunche, and then I got stuck until some people I met on the trek saved me. The next day there was this bus disaster on the same stretch of road I was on, but the real surprise is that it doesn’t happen every day.


     In the next blog post I break down everything I brought to show that you don’t need to carry so much to require a porter. For example, you really don’t need a sleeping bag. Or food. This is what makes Nepal special and unique: you can independently hike for very literally months and months without much backtracking and explore the country while always having shelter and hot food to eat. If you can handle rice, potatoes and lentils every day, even better.
     EPILOGUE:
     While I was heartened to hear from friends I made on the trail that they survived and got out, the bad news has been a beast. Lhakpa from Dorje Bakery in Kyanjin Gompa lost his mother, I read, and he sent me an email saying many other family members died and he is suddenly homeless in Kathmandu. Tsering at Ganesh Himal Guest House in Thulo Syabru wrote to say that she and her mother both hurt their legs and her family is also homeless now on the streets of Kathmandu. The 14-year-old girl I met is from Bamboo, where this video was taken. Tyrone the fruit-loving Aussie is still missing.
     Langtang village seems to have disappeared. I can’t make sense of what I see as I can’t imagine an avalanche on the scale of what the photos and satellite show here and here. From the BBC is this video and these aerial photos plus this video from a helicopter going up the river, which the trail follows. Here is an account of two girls’ story, this is a reddit from another traveler, and someone sent me this showing the mess in Thulo Sybaru. I read that the doctor I visited in Langtang village, Erin, miraculously was away on a walk when the earthquake hit.
     If you are interested in donating money, Erin’s Langtang Valley Health Clinic deserves attention. This is a GoFundme concerning Lakpa of Lama Hotel and Lhakpa of Dorje Bakery. This dude has some wise words about Kathmandu getting the focus of the relief attention, but all the same, I have a contact that I trust and this is her GoFundMe link.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

My Kathmandu in my ridiculous photos

     NOTE: I flew out from Nepal twelve hours before the big earthquake and I left the Langtang area about three days earlier. I started three blog posts before I left: this fluffy one about Kathmandu, a big one about my trek in Langtang and another about practical information doing the trek. While it feels trivial to write about traveling in Nepal since there is so much desperation and suffering in the aftermath, I decided to put these blog posts up anyway for myself, for my own memory.
     My greatest accomplishment in Nepal might have been not getting sick in the four weeks I was here. Last year I went to a clinic because the dust in Kathmandu valley is Beijing-thick and I was hacking phlegm like a Chinese peasant. This time I felt nothing at all. Never got sick from the food either.
     The picture I don’t have here is of the biggest batteries I’ve ever seen that are common in guest houses to keep the wifi going when the power goes out. Every day Kathmandu goes without electricity for at least ten hours. This used to be called a brownout but now goes by the more evocative “load shedding”. The fact that every guest house has a huge battery is recognition that they understand the priorities of travelers, i.e. wifi uber alles.

girls hate me

     “I love those girl who hate me.” OK! Good to know! Thanks for sharing that on the side of your dumptruck.


study lithuania

     There’s a lot to like here. It’s like a backdoor way for Nepalis to disappear inside the European Union. Go “study” in Lithuania! Easy and cheap to get a visa, it’s a Schengen country so you can move around freely—even the name of the company, “First Flight”, says it all.


chisapani woman

     On a short trek with friends near Kathmandu we met this woman on the trail. We were walking up from Sunderijal and she asked if she could join us to Chisapani because she was afraid of walking alone for fear of attack on her and, specifically, her gold nose ring that you can’t see well in this photo. Apparently the measuring stick is that if you are within a day’s walk of Kathmandu, you need to take precautions for your personal safety.


palak paneer momos

     This vaguely Tibetan food was the culinary discovery of the trip: palak paneer momos from Momo Hut on Tridevi Marg in Thamel: a cottage cheese dumpling with a spinach wrapper. Tastes much better than it sounds. US$1.40.


we wanted waiter

     Seen at a Chinese restaurant. Never understood. I thought of bringing my own sign: “I wanted fork.” By the way, Chinese tourists are here in droves, and any Nepali worth his salt is studying Chinese; they see the future.


intimate brothers

     Strong candidate for “Worst Business Name of the Year, 2015″


belize peanut butter

     Peanut butter from Belize! Last time this supermarket had Hungarian chocolate. This time I noticed Spanish chocolate.


sob

     I first thought this was “SOB—son of a bitch” instead of “S loves B”. Pretty cool license plate. If it was metal you could make some money on ebay.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION (US$1 = 99 rupees)
     There’s a new airline flying to Kathmandu: Malindo Air from Kuala Lumpur. I flew for 25,900 rupees, about US$260 one way, though cheaper can be had if you aren’t in a rush to get out before your visa expires. The discount airlines flying out are flydubai and Air Arabia to United Arab Emirates plus Malindo Air and AirAsia to Kuala Lumpur, though someone wrote to tell me that Dragonair in Hong Kong sometimes has great deals. Malindo has a free baggage allowance of 30kg, gives water and a meal on the flight, and has good legroom for someone my size. Even the middle seat isn’t an inconvenience.
     Over the years I have stayed in at least 20 or 30 different guest houses in Kathmandu, easy. I get bored or tired or if one little thing bothers me, I up and go, and Thamel, the tourist ghetto, is absolutely packed with guest houses. I stayed the longest at Namaste Nepal Hotel off Tridevi Marg, south of Fuji Hotel and Gaia Restaurant. I had a top floor room for 1000 rupees with breakfast. The bathroom was next door. Sometimes the shower had low pressure so the staff suggested I bring a bucket and ladle and have an “Indian shower” they called it. They convulsed with laughter whenever the Indian shower was mentioned. I asked if maybe in India they call the same thing a Nepali shower, but they thought that was a ridiculous suggestion.
     You can easily find a taxi from the airport to Thamel or vice versa for 300 rupees. Just walk away from the scrum of touts as you exit the airport, keep walking at a 45 degree angle towards the exit for cars, and once you lose the last guy following you, someone will take you for 300. Since that is the case, maybe you can get 200 rupees from the street outside the airport. There are buses, too, on the street, but they are always packed to bursting so I never try it.
     Actually, the best tip I can give is to avoid Thamel or at least try and find a quiet place. It’s horrible to walk around since it is so congested, noisy, and hazardous. That said, I always say I will avoid it, but I never do.
     The earthquake: if you want to donate money or supplies to a person on the ground in Nepal rather than to an organization, I have a contact that I trust. This is her GoFundMe link.
monkey temple

     Monkey Temple closeup. Funny how a blog post about Kathmandu has this as the only photo of Kathmandu. That’s Dromomaniac style. It might also be an undiagnosed medical condition.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

We should all be hitchhiking in Sri Lanka

backpacker in training

     Backpacker in training. I forgot the part about putting it on your back; I’m an awful mentor.


     Sri Lankan buses have put me on the brink. It’s not them (so much), it’s me. I’m too tall. My backpack only fits next to the driver—if there’s space. At least the driver is communicative. Sri Lanka has the advantage over India in that the bus drivers aren’t betel-nut buzzed crazies driving like there’s no tomorrow. Even if I wasn’t tall, dark and formerly handsome, I too-quickly tire of being jerked around by the constant starts and stops of a typical bus and its impossible-to-reconcile air horn.
     The bus is extremely cheap and the other 200 people on it are friendly without fail, but I decided to make a complete cut from public transportation and throw myself upon the hitchhiking gods. It was a rare, wise move. I descended from the highlands of Ella down to the southern coast of Sri Lanka, and it went so well that I made a semi-circle by continuing around and up past Colombo back to Negombo where I started this trip.
     I would love to have a map right here to show you my route, with jazzy graphics that link to my previous blog posts in Sri Lanka, maybe a Facebook share button that I can’t seem to put on my website, but until I find a place to stop and try and do it or hire someone to show me how, you are stuck with simple pix and text. (Yes, it is a cry for help.)
time is money

     Seen on the inside of a tuk-tuk.


     I am a lonely hitchhiker. I want to be out in the middle of nowhere. I don’t like to be seen by anyone other than the drivers. It was an effective strategy since I hardly ever waited long to get a ride, but I spent more time walking away from town to quieter places than the act of hitchhiking itself.
     The fact that it was a viable option for me, a large, imposing backpacker of dubious hygiene (from a distance!) should make you consider it. Like in most countries, hitchhiking helps accelerate the process of getting to know a place just from the wide variety of people who pick you up. In my case the highlights were Mr. Purple Hat below, a couple of Sri Lankan Telecom guys who gave me a ride of no more than 500 meters but they were so eager to help, and a guy whose job it was to drive around Iranians working at a local power plant that they had invested in.
hitchhike cart

     Whatever you would call this vehicle, it was a first. I didn’t even put my hand out and he stopped to offer a ride. I almost turned him down because I was in a wetland area that was so peaceful and pretty, but there weren’t a whole lot of cars, beggars can’t be choosers, the purple hat, etc. I believe this was driver #8 out of 11 from Ella to Tangalle, which is 145km. I took any driver for any distance.


Sri Lanka wetlands
tangalle beach

     The sea at Tangalle is a titch cooler than any other place I was in Sri Lanka. A smidge. A teense. The beach is dirtier and you wish the water was less opaque, but there are less people, the ocean is fun to swim in, and the non-touristiness was a relief.


mirissa beach

     Some people rave about Mirissa, and I can picture it if you fall in with the right bunch of people, but I like having a real town nearby, not having every single business dedicated to tourists. Weligama, the next town west, had good-looking smooth waves and a town, but the main road goes too close to the beach. There has to be some hidden-away Shangri-la nearby.


free medicine

     I came for the free medicine. It would be funny if they were trumpeting “57% safety!”


Other photos of the fabulous people who picked me up hitchhiking in Sri Lanka
     I have to eat crow about Sri Lanka having made no changes to its infrastructure in the 15 years since I was here. There is a new highway running from Matara in the far south up to near Colombo. Strangely few people are on it, likely because of the price of tolls (aka Japan Syndrome.) It’s a godsend for hitchhikers, though it ends in a distant suburb of Colombo. Somehow I got a miracle ride from where the highway ends up to Negombo, which is like hitching completely through Los Angeles in one ride. Major score.
hitch tangalle

     This man picked me up hitchhiking to go into Tangalle with the admonishment, “I will take you, but if the police stop us because you don’t have a helmet, you must pay.” I assured him I would, but as we were going I wondered of the wisdom of this. I asked, “How much is the fine?” He didn’t know. (Later I found out that it is 500 rupees, or as the policeman spelled it out to me, “(Only) three and a half dollars!”) I said maybe it isn’t a good idea to give me a ride, but he then poopooed my concerns, saying, “I know a back road into town!”


hitch dumptruck

     This was only the second time a dumptruck picked me up. The first was the day before.


hitch principal

     A high school principal gave me a ride from the edge of Weligama to the highway entrance. Reread that sentence. that’s how cool Sri Lanka is.


hitch airport

     I got an embarrassingly short ride to the airport (because I knew how close I was) with this man.


PRACTICAL INFORMATION (US$1 = 131 rupees)
     In Tangalle I stayed in Sun Sea (tel 0713051090) near the beach and town, only 1000 rupees. Relaxing to hear the waves at night. Less relaxing to wave away hordes of mosquitoes while on the toilet.
     I was at Moon Glow Guest House in Mirissa (tel 0773955172), but just after I agreed to stay, two Germans came to tell me that they were robbed two nights before. They said it was their fault, that they slept with the door open for ventilation, but they were on the second floor of a room not facing the street and the thieves rustled around until they found what they wanted. Could it have been an inside job? The Germans trusted the family enough to give them their key while they were out, which is something I never do unless they insist. I lock my backpack around the fan cord in situations like this. Maybe the fact that they slept well enough to be robbed is testament to the quality of the mattresses at Moon Glow.
     In Negombo I decided to stay on the northern end of town. I found a nice-looking place and used the old ruse of saying to the manager that it looks like too nice of a place for me to stay, which it was, but they had one simple room on the top floor for only 1000 rupees. Shanith Guest House, No 8/A Kottuwa Road, Ettukala, Negombo (0312237453).
     There is a type of fat banana here, the fattest banana I’ve ever seen, a fantastic creamy thing called Kolikuttu. The red bananas are also delicious. We Americans need to get over our Cavendish obsession.
     Sri Lanka doesn’t get enough tourist love, this forgotten teardrop of an island off the southeastern coast of India. It is a surprisingly cheap place to get to with the likes of flydubai, AirAsia and Air Arabia. I didn’t realize until I ran around for two weeks that I hardly scratched the surface of everything that I’d like to have done. Travelers, you don’t have an excuse to pass on it, and, no, I didn’t get sick from the food once.
kottuwa station

     Want to know a hot tip? Instead of taking two crowded public buses to get to the airport from Negombo Beach, take the train. Go from Kottuwa Station down to Katunayake South (it continues on to Fort Station in Colombo) and the airport is about 2km east of the overpass. You can catch a quick bus to just before the airport and/or hitchhike the last bit. Piece of cake, trust me.


negombo sunset

     Sri Lankan sunsets never fail.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Excellent service tomorrow in Ella, Sri Lanka

     I’m proud of my Indian-style head wobble. In fact, it’s safe to say that in the history of mankind no one has every performed it better or been more humble about it. There are different wobbles for various situations. I am not yet at grandmaster status for one of the more advanced wobbles used for saying goodbye to people you just had a positive experience meeting. It’s a vigorous figure eight that should not be tried at home nor without professional supervision, and if done incorrectly you risk mocking the person you are communicating with and whiplash.
     I specialize in the most common wobble, the inscrutable, understated one you get when you ask if the bus leaves at 3 o’clock or if the ice in your drink is made from mineral water. I really should teach an online course as it’s too precious to keep it to myself.

street plaque

     Seen on the street in Kandy: “Formerly this street was known by the same name.” Ta da! Can you imagine the sales pitch? “Listen, we should make a beautiful carved stone plaque to signify that this street has always had the same name.” Did a Sri Lankan Airlines executive say, “Genius! Here’s a blank check?”


     I was going to walk to the nine arches bridge along the train tracks but it’s good to know if a train is coming or not. I went to the pretty station in Ella and had this classic exchange with the stationmaster:
     “Is the train on time?”
     “Yes, on time with 10 minutes delay.”
     It was as if I were back in India. Even a Sri Lankan nearby had to laugh.
excellence tomorrow

     How great is this? Excellent service tomorrow. Today? Forget about it! The Ella train station is brimming with unintentional humor.


ella station

     Ella has received awards for having the most beautiful train station in the country, but when you read the comments book they have next to the office, page after page is of people complaining that they don’t inform anyone when the train is late and the stationmaster is uncommunicative. It’s funny to think that the guy is in his own world pruning flowers all day while his station is going to seed.


yellow toothpaste

     How am I supposed to get white teeth with yellow toothpaste? Most Sri Lankans have beautiful bright, white smiles, so they must know something.


little adams peak view

     Isn’t this wonderful? It’s Ella Rock as seen from the viewpoint called Little Adam’s Peak, one of the fantastic little hikes through tea plantations in the area.


ella family

     This sweet family is the caretaker at Holiday Homes where I stayed two nights in Ella. I ruthlessly and ferociously bargained down to 1000 rupees (US$7.50) for a room, money that was going to the absent owner, but in return I let the woman overcharge me for laundry since that money was going into her pocket. How do you say, “Scumbag with a heart of gold” in Tamil?


ella tea

     Typically picturesque tea plantation near Demodara.


train on nine arches

     I bought a 20 rupee (US 15 cent) train ticket just to ride it 10 kilometers to Demodara and go over the nine arches bridge. At Demodara it makes a 360 degree turn and goes right under the train station you just disembarked from. I walked and hitchhiked back to Ella.


nine arches
nine arches closeup

     Train’s coming! RUUUNN!!


PRACTICAL INFORMATION (US$1 = 131 rupees)
     I took the train from Jaffna down to Kurunegala, then took a one-hour bus to Kandy with two tall, blond Dutchmen, a guy with tattoos all over and a girl with enormous dreadlocks. I was sure that if I was naked I would go unnoticed, but I never tested it. Kandy was bursting at the seams with tourists. Accommodation was tight. I started walking north away from the center and found a place less sad and mosquito-infested than the YMCA dorm for 1000 rupees.
     I stayed at a second, nicer place in Ella, right in the middle of town for 1500 rupees at Ella Village Inn, but you have to trample through someone’s living room to access your room. If you aren’t in the corner (#3?), it’s awkward.
     Ella feels remote and since it is near the end of the line you’d think a train ticket back towards Kandy and Colombo should be nothing to worry about, but reservations on all five trains on a Sunday were fully booked. You can buy unreserved the same day, and tickets somehow miraculously appear or their quota suddenly increases or I don’t know what, but don’t give up hope. Keep hope alive!
     (I had a funny experience at the Colombo train station. There is a “Train Tourist Information” office, and when you walk in and show your foreign self, suddenly every train ticket on “full” trains is available. They unfurl a beautiful, large train map of the country that I have never seen anywhere else and they discuss all the places you can go—but only on expensive package tours. When you say you aren’t interested in a tour, they roll up the map as you are staring at it like the red carpet is being pulled away and ignore you like you just passed gas in their office.)
     I’m no fan of the food in Ella or anywhere with hardly any local restaurants. A few Sri Lankans told me to eat at Lata, which appears to be a simple, signless general store up from the only supermarket in town, but if you poke your head in there is a tiny restaurant in the back. The food’s too salty.

     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

Investigating war-torn Jaffna one chapati at a time

elephant row
     My last time in Sri Lanka there weren’t many places you could safely travel as it was still in the depths of the civil war. The entire northern half of the country was strictly no-go. Only last month was it made wide open since permits from the military were scrapped. Jaffna in the far north suddenly became my priority for this trip and I took a punctual, 6.5-hour, US$6 train from Colombo to get there. (I am ALL about the trains. I would take the train from Colombo to Jaffna a hundred times before I would take a bus, even if it wasn’t too cramped with a backpack.)
     I haven’t followed the war and its aftermath closely. The Tamils in the north lost with almost 100,000 deaths on both sides, and this might be the only country in the world that doesn’t trust Norwegians. (For some reason Norway decided to dive in head first to aid the peace process with mixed results.)
     The land gets flatter and more fallow as you go north. The whole north that I saw was like that, but for all the derelict buildings and unused land, I could never tell if it is from war, tsunami (40,000 people died in Sri Lanka) or simply poverty. The north is slower, quieter, bucolic, the atmosphere is more subdued, and the people dress more traditionally/conservatively. I was watching the Sri Lanka-Australia World Cup cricket match on TV from Australia, and all the Sri Lankan fans they showed in the stands looked nothing like anyone I saw in the north or anywhere else, really. It must be stunning for people here to see.

bottles jaffna station

     Every time I walked by this room at the Jaffna train station (yes, I do like hanging out at train stations as well as post offices and prisons) the door was closed and the windows covered with newspaper. When I finally spotted it open, I poked my head in and voila! A mountain of plastic bottles. Someone appeared and sheepishly told me that they are waiting for the recycler to come. Godot Recyclers, maybe.


sri lanka post box

     sri lanka post box


     I made a day trip to Point Pedro on the northern coast. It’s only 30km away, but it took an hour and a half to get there. I walked out to the beach, stared at it for 10 minutes, and walked back to the town where I sat with a shop owner to watch some of the cricket. That’s a nice thing about being a foreigner here: I am gladly welcomed when I ask if I can sit in a guy’s shop and watch TV. I bought some mango drinks and we chatted about his upcoming vacation. He won a free trip to Bangkok because he made the biggest display of a supplier’s products.
     The next day I went west to just before Karainagar to see Casuarina Beach. I sat forever waiting for the bus and then it was deathly slow, taking an hour to go 20km, so I decided to hitchhike back. It was remarkably easy. The first four times I threw my arm out, the first vehicle stopped: one car and three motor scooters. It felt very liberating to zoom around the quiet countryside on the back of a motor scooter, though the road was bad and I didn’t have a helmet. I was less worried about helmetlessness being illegal than to get plastered by a passing truck. A tuk-tuk slowed and offered a ride for free, which almost never happens anywhere in the world, then an old man on a scooter stopped for me and before I had a chance to say anything, he said, “Come,” and took me into Jaffna.
     Once in Jaffna we got stopped at a police checkpoint. The officer motioned at us from across the street, sternly waving us over to him. The old man did the head wobble and in a conciliatory way said, “Foreigner!” The officer was unmoved, but when I got off the back of the scooter and turned so he could see me—I’m telling you, my dark skin is almost at Tamil levels (#skincancerherewecome)—the old man repeating, “Foreigner!”, with an even more effective head wobble, the officer changed his mind and motioned for us to proceed.
     I might go into a few banks and take some money. I’ll just sashay in and shout, “Foreigner!” while I fill my backpack with cash.
vegetarian hotel
     Vegetarian hotels! I waited a couple of times, but I could never get a photo of a wandering cow in front of a vegetarian hotel.
veghotel2
veghotel3
pepsi truck jaffna

     No ugly Pepsi delivery truck for Sri Lanka, no Sir!


pepsi truck back

     Imagine how much time it took to paint this.


casaurina police

     An old Casuarina Beach police post?


PRACTICAL INFORMATION (US$1=133 rupees)
     I stayed at Raamni Guest House in Jaffna for 1400 rupees a night. It was OK, but every morning I woke at 5am to the sound of “It’s a Small World” blasting from a passing vehicle. The YMCA is only 800 for a single, but it is a bit distant from the center of town. No mosquito net either, though the gregarious manager said he could provide one for 50 rupees.
     Foreigners tend to mass at Mangos Restaurant north of town by Nallur Temple to eat, but I didn’t see the big deal. Cosy Restaurant (wifi password 2A55370AE03) on Stanley Road by the train tracks and especially Akshathai just down the street are just as good.
akshathai

     At Akshathai this is what you get when you order simply “chapati” on the menu: chapati with coconut chutney and chana masala. Only a dollar.


     I met an Austrian pro photographer in Jaffna who, I will redundantly say, is taking photos infinitely better than anything I have. Check them out.
     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

I am in Sri Lanka for no reason at all

     This is my second visit to Sri Lanka; I was last here 15 years ago when there was still a civil war. I was surprised to see a new highway going between Colombo and the airport, but it seems to be the only addition or improvement to the infrastructure. In essence, zero has changed in Sri Lanka in 15 years. If you like your countries frozen in time, Sri Lanka welcomes you warmly.

garbage sign

     Tell it like it is, Sri Lankan Sign Maker! The other two languages on the sign are Sinhala and Tamil. I learned both over the weekend. Easy peasy.


     My time in Sri Lanka is entirely improvised. I impulsively bought a cheap ticket from Dubai and flew out two days later. My life is usually entirely improvised. Most of the time I don’t know where I am sleeping night to night. It’s an endangered way of traveling that is threatening to becoming extinct in this age of pre-booking and planning everything. The convenience is worth the trade-off, I guess the argument is. Maybe there is a good reason my way of living is close to extinction: I’m always tired.
     I went to Negombo, a beach town north of the capital, Colombo, and close to the airport that used to be infamous for child sex tourism. I expected a poor man’s Pattaya, and went early in case I wanted to escape, but it was pleasant. I didn’t see anything skeezy at all, and I had this great first Sri Lankan meal:
first SL meal

     This was 250 rupees (US$1.90), I believe. From the top, clockwise: dahl (mashed lentils), fish curry, okra—I didn’t eat it. Sorry, Mom, I know you love okra—rice, papadam (a crispy chip made from lentil or mung bean flour) and the green stuff next to the rice is just something tasty and indescribable. The woman behind this meal had a lovely accent, and her English was better than I would have guessed, and then it came out that she was actually British, a Sri Lankan emigrant who returned home because of an illness in the family. The visit became prolonged and she started a tiny restaurant with her husband.


     I found a cheap, good place to stay, Nature View Lodge in Negombo, right by the beach. I bargained and got a room for 1700 rupees (US$13). In a whisper I was told to be quiet about my deal, though I am probably paying more than everyone. How did I learn about this place? By doing a radical thing: going up to another traveler and asking. That’s a novel concept these days. No one talks to each other any more. This used to be the traveler modus operandi, partly because there was no internet and partly because it is a better way that has been lost in our desperate, never ending search to find the best information in a sea of dreck. How can you glean anything useful out of TripAdvisor? How can you sort through all the reviews for a trend when you have no idea of people’s biases or expectations? There’s no consensus. I find it a waste of time. I can take one quick look at this unkempt traveler, his backpack, his clothes, and know his word is gold. The owner of Nature View turned out to be a two-faced shyster, but that’s besides the point.
kent water

     The Kent Elite II water purifier. Full refund if you die from dysentery!


     There was a topless European girl frolicking in the water and she was being openly filmed by a local guy on the beach like he was on a safari. (I wonder if Sri Lankan boys have a Big 5 of topless women they hope to spot.) When the girl noticed, she shot him a look of reproach, but I could hardly blame him. I’d have done the same, but I might try and be cooler about it. It’s crazy for the exotic white woman to think that in a deeply conservative society she can appear on a beach topless and not expect to be stared/filmed. I have read that nudity is illegal, but I don’t know if it is true.
negombo sunset

     Negombo sunset, the first of many daily fantastic sunsets. The water is a perfect temperature and seems clean enough, though I wasn’t thrilled to have a giant jellyfish slime across my chest.


     I was on the beach at Mt. Lavinia, a beach town south of Colombo, a few days later during a poya (full moon holiday) and there were throngs of locals, but I noticed only one local girl wearing a bikini top. This in itself caused a small stir among the nearby guys as she clung to her father lest in fear of becoming the slow wildebeest, so an exotic white woman topless? The boys are probably walking around with 15 spare camera batteries just for such an event.
mt lavinia beach

     Mt. Lavinia beach, the day before the holiday.


     With dumb luck I stumbled on to Mt. Lavinia Beach Hostel, a rambling home partially converted into a hostel very close to the beach, but I woke up in the morning with red spots all over my legs. I don’t know if it was mosquito bites or bedbugs. Mosquito bites are alarming since there is dengue fever, malaria and chikungunya in Sri Lanka, but what’s a little degenerative virus when your hostel has the smell of frangipani? Do you know this tree? Frangipani is so beautiful and the flowers so fragrant, it is creeping into my Top 5 Trees (redwood, jacaranda, baobab, banyan, and my memory fails me for the fifth. I think it’s a Brazilian tree…) It made me want to to stay. I’ll pay better attention at getting my mosquito net right.
     I had to go into town to try and buy a train ticket to Jaffna. A train to Colombo Fort station runs from Mt. Lavinia right on the coast, so close to the beach that when you sit on the sand you can feel the rumble of the train passing by. I’m glad everyone else has the mindset to take the bus over the train to town, which is insanity. I did it once; it took me an hour to go 10km. You sweat to death, you have to put up with the noise and the strong starts and stops in traffic, the hothead driver is shouting at another driver, and then you wait until he feels that he has enough passengers. OR, you can take the mellow train with sea views, the breeze, hang out with the stationmaster, be allowed into the office to see the cool, old-fashioned equipment and the ticket booth with the thick, Edmondson-style tickets they still use. No-brainer!
mt lavinia tickets

     The Mt. Lavinia station ticket cabinet. That is an arrack (very strong, distilled alcohol) bottle under the counter. I am going to say that it is filled with water, but if you had to deal with gee-whiz-can-I-take-a-photo foreigners all day, you’d be on the hooch, too.


mt lavinia tracks

     The train tracks of Mt. Lavinia.


mt lavinia sunset 1

     Mt. Lavinia beach sunset


PRACTICAL INFORMATION (US$1 = 133 rupees)
     I flew flydubai from Dubai to Colombo for US$140 one way. Not bad for a four-hour flight, though it was a red-eye and I found myself half-dead at Colombo airport at 5am. There is an electronic visa you can get beforehand for $30 for us white-trash Americans (I got my confirmation in minutes) or you can pay $35 upon arrival, it appeared.
     Mt. Lavinia Beach Hostel was 1200 rupees for a dorm or 1750 for a single room. I stayed in both.
     Never buy SIM cards at an airport. They are taking advantage of you not knowing the market, but I am the last human without a smartphone, so don’t listen to me. I bought one for 150 rupees in town.
     Last thing: from my visit 15 years ago, I have only this story to show for it. I might have recklessly made up the last sentence as I can’t imagine half falling asleep outside at a cricket match.
aussie doctor

     I don’t know why I find this noteworthy. Maybe that I don’t need a name. “Australian Doctor” is enough? If I were Aussie and I became sick, would I call him/her? I might.


mt lavinia sunset 2

     Just one last sunset pic, if you don’t mind.


     Why don’t you stay with me? You can follow along with RSS, subscribe to an email feed, see what’s cooking on Facebook, pray that I’ll say something worth remembering on Twitter and if you are really slumming it, there’s always Google+. (I’ll follow you back!)

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