(Continued Co-blog of Journey to Kathmandu, by Richard Arnold in which our band of Oregonian travelers explore the Himalayan country of Nepal.)
We come to the first sign we’ve seen on the trek. The trail comes to a T with a left and a right arrow painted on the curb of a sidewalk. (A concrete sidewalk! We must be in civilization.) Left to Jomsom and right to Tibet. We head north towards Tibet (!) and into the town of Kagbeni.
We cross the stream on a low concrete bridge and come to a sidewalk of sorts going uphill. It is a concrete version of the yak festooned path I slipped in on the way to Jarkot. The sides to the sidewalk are covered with packed/melting snow and angle down to a concrete drain about 4 inches deep and 8 inches wide. The center drain is full of yak poop. A herd of small children have been recruited to pick up the hunks of melting snow and toss them into the stream. They do not like this job and are looking for a chance to rebel. We give them that reason. They pick out chunks of snow and begin flinging it at us. We yell and run the gauntlet protesting peaceful intent. It does us no good. They get us real good. We stop to toss some back and aim too high to hit anyone. (How can an adult win a game like this with children?) So we enter the town.
There are several larger versions of the hotel we stayed in last night at Jarkot. A herd of tourists are lazing about looking like they are going to climb a mountain at any moment. They have crampons and mountaineering axes with them. All they actually do is drink beer and read compact/travelers edition, small type books on Buddhism. A nice place to do this sort of thing. We find an empty tavern with a view and order up some food. The waitress is a young Tibetan girl. She asks us to write down the items we want: Beer and Lomas. Is she learning how to read others people’s writing or can she read but not write. Either maybe, this custom seems common in the mountains. We are happy since we think we are close to Jomsom and have an easy stroll home. We plan our return to the gauntlet of snowball flinging kids. Christopher decides : We have been invited to the snowball fight! So we will fling some snow back at the kids when the time comes.
There are 2 prominent structures in Kagbeni: a big red temple and the Mud Fort. We are not invited to the temple, so we do the fort. The fort is a dun colored mess. Reputed to be from the 1500’s or the 1200’s or even earlier depending on who you ask. It was built to block/guard the pass to Tibet and certainly to tax the trade from China to India. Some say that the Great Khan Kublai posted Marco Polo there to collect taxes, but that is uncertain.
You see Kagbeni from far off, but it is uncertain when you enter it on foot from the more modern town. Nothing has so prepared me for a place except for MC Escher. Stairs climb up here, descend there. Windows pop out of walls. You duck under a sagging lintel and pass through a dank tunnel to appear into a slanted courtyard. There is no indoor plumbing here, so the fort is a total sewer. Amazing! You will have to go there. I took some time exposures that I’ll attach, but no picture does it justice.
Now the gauntlet. We get close before the kids see us. Christopher picks up arm loads of clean-ish snow. I pick up a huge block of poop encrusted snow. We rush at them yelling. They are surprised and mount an ineffectual resistance tossing small handfuls of snow. Christopher is softly pelting them with well aimed snow balls. One brave kid picks up a huge block of snow and rushes me. The snow block he is carrying is too heavy for him and he stumbles as I dodge. There he is lying face up on the ground frozen in fear. I hover over him with my block of poop encrusted snow. He is caught. The crowd stops in amazement. Silence! What will I do? I drop it right onto his face. Everybody applauds! Old women come out to join the festivities. Everybody is waving and cheering. We run away.
The trail back is longer than we imagined. Rocks the size of grapefruit turn our ankles and it is much too hot and the sun is right in my face. Here is where we earn some character. We are in the wide river valley and while it was interesting on the way out, it is not on the way back. The rocks on the river bed become larger. A slip will get our feet caught sideways and between basketball shaped rocks. We might be badly hurt far from help.
We meet the Austrians from a day ago and they are in great spirits, The sick one says that my joke about not being a doctor was the turning point in his illness. He can’t wait to get home and tell all his friends the great American joke. We warn them about the children in Kagbeni.
We pull into Jomsom at sunset and hear some rifle shots as we enter town. The local buzz is that they caught some Maoist Terrorists and have been shooting them a little bit at a time. Seems a bit bizarre, but we have come back to civilization.
Our room is still available and we take a quick shower while the solar heated hot stuff is still available. Wonderful. The town is vacant. We are the only ones here. Talk of snow storms and terrorists has driven away all the tourists. The big windows of the upstairs restaurant show the most beautiful example of alpenglow I’ve ever seen. We ask that they keep the gross florescent lights off and while they think that strange, they agree. We are the only tourists in town after all. they don’t care if we are strange. We order up beer, french fries (EXTRA CRISPY!), fried Lomas and Beer. About the 2nd beer, Christopher says that he sees an avalanche.
The cornice of Nilgiri has broken off and a vague grey line is descending the abrupt western face. We discuss it and chomp down on the fries. We start on the 3rd beer and the avalanche is still falling. It is a very long way down to the talus above the town. We ask waiter if the town is in danger. Probably not he says nonchalantly. Night falls and it is dark. The hotel brings us a kerosene lantern and put it in the corner so it casts soft spooky shadows… perfect. So what do you do after the greatest adventure in your life? You go to bed and wake up the next morning and go back home. Pokhara in our case.
Part 11 – Back to Pokhara
Back at the Peace Hotel. Our innkeeper is standing there at his desk to greet us. The ceiling in my room is still very tall. The air is cool the sun is bright without being intense and hurtful like it was in the mountains. My room looks untouched except that I have clean bed sheets and towels. My dirty laundry has been washed, folded and put in the wardrobe. Everything I’d left on the top of the wardrobe has been lined up and “arranged”. The birds sing outside my corner windows like they are glad to see me again. The flowering trees outside my windows have a subtle sweetness and sway gently in the breeze. It is a lovely day softly warm and beautiful. I am so happy to be back.
I go to see the innkeeper and thank him for our tickets. He is tall and wearing those long linen vests over baggy linen pants that Indians favor. He is always smiling.
He asks me: Were they good tickets?
I say, certainly. We got them through you. Everything was just perfect. A question though, they were only about one half the price the airline gave us. That was kind of you. Why did you not charge us the full price?
The innkeeper says: If you’d bought them from the airlines, no one in Pokhara would have profited. The money would have gone straight to a Swiss bank account. As it was, I got them from a friend, who got them from a friend, who got them from a friend… lots of people in Pokhara profited.
I say, not by very much. You could have charged us more. Why did you not charge us more?
The innkeeper says was enough money. I could spread the money you paid among many of my friends. I don’t need the money; it would be bad for me to have too much money.
I ask, why bad?
The innkeeper says: If you make too much money in Nepal, you get noticed. It is bad to be noticed. You have to pay taxes.
I say, we pay taxes in USA.
The innkeeper says: Yes but you are a nation of laws. Your tax regulations are written down and obeyed by your government. In the USA, taxes are fair. Here in Nepal, we are fair to each other in different ways. Ways that are not taxed. For instance: all those friends of mine who got a cut of your airline ticket were all made happy. Everyone who participated profited both by getting a bit of money and by helping someone else in the chain. No one was taxed.
I say, but I am a tourist. It is my job to buy things here in Nepal to help the economy. What should I do?
The innkeeper says: There is a young man at the end of our street. He is newly married with a young child. He makes t-shirts and does them very skillfully, but business is bad. I see that you have no Nepalese t-shirts. They make a good souvenir, you should buy some.
I ask one more thing: Why does everybody in Nepal speak English?
The innkeeper says: We are all Indians. English is the official language of India. The farmers in the jungles speak a different language, but they generally stay put so you never see them. The Tibetans in the mountains are hosting trekkers all the time, so they all speak English too. We even speak English to the french. (A joke, we both smile.)
Jim and Gary are Pokhara good ole boys by now. They know every bar and wave at the bartender who calls out: The usual gentlemen? They advise us the see The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) playing on VCR at one of the bars. The spinach enchiladas are superb. Jim is getting together a library of CD’s from the 60’s and 70’s. (A time when he spent a lot of time in submarines and when he surfaced… the Kingston Trio were no longer cool, the Beatles had come and gone). CD’s cost $5 in Pokhara. Since Jim is buying by bulk, he has negotiated a $4 price. Gary is scouting out the 4-star hotels in the area so he can return with his wife. We all love Pokhara, but I don’t know. I think it is a bit rough for our ladies. We are swaggering about just a bit… being hardened trekkers and all.
We are all getting a bit antsy over the news. The Maoist rebels have made a strike on a police station somewhere to get guns. Since it is hard to be a terrorist without guns, they attacked a police compound with machetes and took their armory. The news is that they ran amuck and killed over 130 police. Six terrorists were killed. The explanation for the overwhelming victory by the rebels is that the police would not fire on their attackers. Killing is forbidden here. Sounds like a bad beginning to a civil war. A terrorist spokesman has said that tourists should not be alarmed, this is between the Nepalese and we should not worry about our safety. We are not comforted. Jim and Gary want to head back to Kathmandu. I want to stay around for a while but prudence is clearly on their side. Our innkeeper makes reservations for us on the next bus back. We will have one more day in Pokhara.
We seriously shop for t-shirts. Some of the vendors are a bit “crusty”. They’ve seen tourists come and go and while genial about taking own money… well, they come off as too knowing. So, we follow the innkeepers suggestion, the young man at the end of our street. His work is excellent so we place an order. We need extra large since we are enormous tourists. How many can you get? Well, he has some in stock, he can get more. The price negotiation is necessary but perfunctory. We know how much t-shirts cost. We will pay the going rate. We don’t ask for a discount. We order many designs, Celtic crosses, fantasy designs, buddha eyes… He will have to work all night, but is delighted for the work. Jim wants a special order: Not the standard Harley design… keep the general idea, but make it a dragon instead of an eagle… change the shield to one like this (He points) Celtic design… Jim wants a non-Harley design that the Harley guys will at first glance mistake for one of theirs. (This turns out to be a gift for me… I have a Suzuki SV650.) The man can do it. His child is crawling about smiling at all the tall giants in his father’s shop. His wife peeks about the door. They are a cute family. I feel we are doing the right thing buying from him.
For our last day in town, what shall we do? Some of the locals are doing wheelies in the dusty street so we get an idea. Why not rent some motorcycles and zip up to the top of the mountain obscuring our view of Fishtail? We can be there for sunset! Three of us are reasonably proficient motorcyclists. I am the only one who has not crossed the USA by motorcycle and I’m up for it. The idea is tempting. As soon as we get this notion, a couple of guys come over to visit. They ask us what motors we have back home. They recognize us as motorcycle nuts by the way we are checking out their bikes.
We sit down on the curb and chitchat about bikes. It is a universal thing among bikers. There is a general prohibition in Nepal against bikes over 150cc. The police want to be sure of catching anybody they take a notion to visit with. The locals are amazed at the bikes we own. Ducati “Monster”, Suzuki SV650, Savage 600… it is the stuff of dreams for these guys. Now comes Jim. Jim is the voice of reason. (Jim is also the only one with no motorcycle at home.) He reminds us that the local my-turn/your-turn customs are different here. The roads are more potholes than surface. The mountain roads go to the edge, then comes a cliff with nary a guardrail. Kaiser Permanente (Health Maintenance Organization) has no emergency room here. Our wives and girl friends would faint dead away if they knew what we were contemplating. So we don’t go. I agree, but I do hate yielding to prudence sometimes.
Part 12 – Back to Kathmandu
Back to Kathmandu on the tourist bus. Fewer people this time. Nobody talks much. On the pass into the Kathmandu valley there are lots of soldiers scurrying around and the machine guns appear more numerous. The guns are pointed at the bus as we round the corner. It is Sunday and a general strike has been called by the Maoists for the following Wednesday. We are discussing getting out of town early. The streets of Thamel are looking deserted compared to the bustle of when we left.
The Kathmandu Guest House (KGH) has canceled the reservations we made at our departure. They want $7 US a night. Christopher tells them they are not nice and we walk out in a display of disgust. Jim says that he doesn’t care and will be happy to pay $7 US. We walk across the street and see what we can do. No problem. $3 US a night. No instant Nescafé in a garden like the KGH, but we feel principled and satisfied with our decision. We go back to see Jim and Gary and find that the KGH is filled with American Peace Corps newbies. They are wandering about taking pictures of the obscene wall carvings. One of them tells us that they are going into the jungles where the real need is. I say nothing, that is where the Maoists are. He is probably right about the real need being in the jungle. An editorial in the local paper complains that American aid only goes to Two places: First to the mountains and foothills to “pump prime” the tourist industry. Second to the city of Kathmandu where it can be “seen” by visiting foreign delegations. The airline agency opens for business Monday at 10 AM and we plan to be there.
Monday morning we all show up early at The Nutmeg Café. The cooks are checking the scones and croissants browning in the oven. The head waiter glances at us out of the corner of his eye as he carries the censer of incense over to the birds, the trees and to the newly blooming flowers. The birds come down from the upper branches of the trees to be greeted. It is a lovely way to start the day. The waiter brings out our usual… double espressos with steamed milk. He says he remembers us and is glad to welcome us back. We feel at home.
10 Am and we are at the airline ticket agency. A Thai Airlines agent says that phone lines are down, so just give him our information and he will see what he can do. I offer to buy a ticket to SFO for my son Christopher and the agent takes my MasterCard info. We are feeling really nervous by now. We decide to wander over to see the Virgin Goddess in Durbar square for lunch. On the way, we see a Compaq computer store. Gary goes in and asks if the new Compaq computers have CD burners… they do. Gary wants a demo. Could you copy our flash cards onto your computer and burn them onto CD’s? Sounds like fun the guy says, so we lose Gary while he tries to backup his camera flash cards.
We continue to Kathmandu’s Durbar square and turn our 3-day passes into the guard. Can we get an extension to our expired passes? Sure says the guard. How much? No charge, you ask so politely that we want very much for you to come see our treasures. Nice folks. We find a roof top bar and begin lunch with flaky Chapati and various dipping sauces. The morning miasma lifts and the sky is a beautiful clear blue. The beer is frosty cold and we can discern the Monkey Temple in the hills. We went there on our first morning in Kathmandu and we are getting nostalgic about everything we’ve seen and about places we’ve been. Maybe it is the beer. Gary shows up in the square below and we yell and wave to get his attention. Half the square waves back and Gary comes up to see us. He is several beers behind, but we have not sampled every appetizer on the menu and can plan on sharing a few more with Gary. He has the flash memory cards transferred to CD’s and is feeling very pleased with himself. We are all both witty and insightful. The conversation sparkles. It is late afternoon before we leave.
We wander down “Freak Street” which is at the south end of the square. This where the Beatles famously got their costumes for the cover of their LP “The Magical Mystery Tour”. I want some blue velvet bell bottoms with red brocade inserts running up the side. Jim says that I am about to commit a fashion atrocity. I say that I don’t care I want them. The vendor hi-balls me on the price and I am instantly turned off on the whole idea. I may have had a wonderful lunch with beer, but I’m not stupid. Jim wants to get some brass door handles for his garden door. The vendors show him replicas of the obscene sculptures we see about as roof supports and as door handle. Jim thinks that this fashion won’t go over too well in Wilsonville, Oregon. (We must be getting ready to go home now.) So off we go shopping. The first guy we see has some OK, non-obscene door handles and Jim asks, How much? $70 US. Ridiculous I suggest. Jim says it seems a bit high and we begin to walk away. His vendor is following us of course. Jim is unhappy with the way this is going. I turn back and offer $10US, the vendor replies with $15 US, I counter with $5 US. What says the vendor… this is not the way a negotiation is supposed to go… we are supposed to meet in the middle. Not this time I counter. He offers $7 US, I say no,.. he says OK $5 US, I say no. $5… not now, not at any price.
Jim and I trudge off to the temple of Shiva, the one in the center of the square that looks kinda like a narrow pyramid and side step our way up the stairs to the top about 50 yards over the square. We plop down on the rim and stare down at all the exotica swirling about below us. Evening is coming and the sky is murking up into a brownish streaky blue. We are Kathamandu’ed out. We begin to discuss our ladies back in Oregon and are getting maudlin.
Gary joins us sitting on the temple rim. He has bought the neatest temple bell. We agree it really is a great bell and decide to head for home. Half way back to the hotel, Gary realizes he has left the bell at the temple and we should stand here in the street till he returns. So here we stand. A small kid about 6 years old is minding a store located in the window of his home. It is really a small room with the walls covered in racks of merchandise. The ever present Tiger Balm lip gloss and assorted what not. We begin to chat. He asks me what I need to buy. I start to say that I don’t need anything, but think better of it. I ask, what would you suggest? He asks, do you have a girl friend? I say yes, her name is Catherine. He says, well, in his experience, every lady loves a new set of “Bindis”. (These are the little diamond pasties that Indian women put on their foreheads, sometimes called “caste marks”.) He asks, what does Catherine look like and I begin to tell him. He puzzles a bit and suggests some red… some blue. I ask how much they cost. Very cheap! He asks if I have some small change rupee notes, the ones too small for a tourist to buy anything in Thamel. (This kid knows how things work!) In fact, I do have some 5, 10 rupee notes… 35 rupees in all. I give them to him and he picks out 5 packages. Catherine will love them he says! We are all happy now. Smiles all around.
Gary shows up despondent and without his bell. We agree to meet for dinner at the KMG. Christopher and I shop the brass sculpture shops. Beautiful Buddha, Ganesha and Nataraja sculptures of small to enormous sizes. We want them all but shipment costs to the USA would be horrendous.
I wander off by myself to see Mustapha the jewel merchant. He has been waving at me each time I pass his store trying to get me in to buy something. I have begun to plan my way past his shop to avoid him. This is not right… so I walk up and ask him if I might visit. He seems a bit surprised that I am not being evasive. I tell him he is the single most interesting person I have met in Nepal. How did he become such a great salesman… How does he do it… Will he tell me? Yes, he will.
First of all Mustapha looks at a prospect’s shoes to see how much they will spend. Then he tries to model their thought. He brings things out, sees what they respond to. Price is not his concern. He will be evasive at first… see what we have, what do you see that you like? A big pile of jewels will begin to grow in front of the client. The client will wince when a favorite is put back in a box, he’ll smile when it taken out again. Take my friend Jim, from Wilsonville Oregon… Mustapha has remembered all the details of Jim’s life. I am amazed at the detail Mustapha retains. He says that Jim will return again to buy more from him. Mustapha knows this and Jim will be remembered when he returns. Jim knows nothing about gems Mustapha tells me. But Jim knows his lady and Mustapha sees Jim giving necklaces and bracelets to his lady. Mustapha tells me what Jim’s lady looks like as she dresses for a party. How Jim smiles as she picks out the seven strand green gem necklace and Jim helps her with the clasp. (Wow, you know all this? Yes he says, and I’m right!) Mustapha finally give the client the price. A frown… Mustapha begins to put things back into boxes, he takes them out again. More tea? He adds more complementary bracelets and rings. The price does not change. To lower the price is to raise questions about the worth. (What is the worth?) The markup is so high that not even Mustapha knows the cost, I buy them by the kilo he says. But, he knows the worth: They are worth the price. His concern is not that Jim or his lady will like the gems, he knows that they will. He says the person he must impress is the jeweler they will see in Wilsonville, Oregon when they get home. That jeweler must be impressed, then Mustapha will have even more business. (Does this happen?) Oh yes! He gets repeat business all the time. He even gets repeat business from Amsterdam, a noted gem center. He owns 5 stores in Kathmandu.
We all go to a sitar concert. Music a bit of tea. A tabla joins the concert. The music is melancholy. We go to a “Highland” restaurant and they put on bagpipe music for us. Exotic, but since we are the only ones there, we ask them to choose something else. They find some soft Nepalese folk melodies and we are quietly happy. We go to our rooms and I watch Indian style MTV.
It is Tuesday. The Thai Airline folks got us some tickets for tomorrow. One last day in Nepal. Christopher says there is one more very special place to see in the Kathmandu valley, Bhaktapur. So we immediately head off in a taxi. We quickly bargain them down from $30US to 100 rupees, around $1.50 and we are on our way.
There were 3 competing cities in the valley about 500-300 years ago. (Kathmandu & Bhaktapur & Lalitpur) Each has its “Durbar” square which means central temple complex. We climb up the foothills to the south east of Kathmandu and see clear blue skies. The smoke haze is gone and we can see the monkey temple far on the other side of the valley with Kathmandu in between and sunk in the smog.
We pay the 200 rupee entrance fee and in we go see Bhaktapur. It is probably in better shape than Kathmandu. The foothill location probably lets what rains there are here wash the place clean. Christopher takes us past the main square and into a 3 story pagoda. It looks like a temple, but it is a restaurant. We are going to have “royal yogurt”. They say, yes, they have it… would you like a cup of coffee first? We say yes since it gives us more time to sit on the top level and survey the crowd below.
We see a guy running off down an alley. About 1/2 hour later, he will return with a wicker rack holding about 2 dozen clay pots: the royal yogurt. The coffee is excellent and we truly do enjoy the view. The levels get smaller towards the top and give the illusion of greater height. We are high enough and bump our heads on the ceiling. We lean out over the edge. The guard rail is below our waist. 4 American giants are spoiling the illusion of great height. The yogurt really is good. We are all secretly worrying about vile intestinal distress but nobody will admit to it. The secret to the yogurt is in the clay pots. All the whey is drawn out as the yogurt sets up and the flavor while mild, is very concentrated. Gary wants to take the clay pots home and we discuss carry on baggage space, breakage and the nature of theft. We talk Gary out of stuffing them in his pockets. He very formally gathers them up and offers them to the waiter for “recycling”. (Did I tell you that Gary hails from San Francisco?) The waiter is mystified. What does this strange foreigner intend? Finally he very formally accepts the clay pots. They both nod, smile and the waiter flings the pots over the guard rail where they shatter on the street below. Gary is aghast. We peer over to see if anyone was hurt. No, but there is a guy sitting on the curb that gets up with a broom and sweeps the shards onto an existing heap of broken pottery. That’s how they do the dishes in Bhaktapur
Christopher points out that we are about to witness a religious event. A goat has been decorated with ribbons and painted with Hindu designs. Everybody is smiling and petting the goat and whispering secret words into its ears. The goat is very happy. It is everybody’s favorite goat. From our vantage point, it does not look good for the goat. Everybody finally seems to be tiring of waiting for some thing to happen and they flick some water on the goats face. The goat nods and quickly is snatched off the ground and gets a small knife stuck in its throat. Blood squirts in an arc onto the Mahakala statue near by. An amazingly small blade, less than 1 inch… I’m a city kid and never killed any critters on a farm so I am astonished. After 5-6 squirts, the goat relaxes and begins to shudder. Everybody is cheering and making praying gestures. The blood is down to a dribble and the guy with the small knife is daubing people’s foreheads with little smears of blood. Well, that’s how it is done. I haven’t seen any flies around and thought the red varnish on the statues was some sort of paint. Well, it’s not. They cut the goat head off and take it somewhere. Maybe soup?
We wander off and see quite a few goat carcasses lying about. They get blistered with a blowtorch and otherwise just sit about in the sun. We eat vegetarian Lomas for lunch in a lovely rooftop cafe and head back to Kathmandu/Thamel. A wedding procession goes by. We wave and wish the newly weds peace and happiness. They wave back.
I buy four really great sweaters at $6 US apiece. Jim and I buy some Khukuri knives. They are the forward reaching 18 inch knives that the Ghurka soldiers. The police also have them also instead of guns. (Which is probably why they do so poorly against those willing to kill them.) Wonderfully well made, nothing like the cheap Indian versions you see in America. I buy 4, Jim buys only 2… $7 US apiece… a package deal. We are indulging all out pent up shopping urges. Laden with stuff we trudge back. In the window of a small shop is a wonderfully crafted dragon trumpet. The shop owner asks if we know what a “beer horn” is… you come home from a hard days work, sit in front of the TV and ask your wife to get you a beer… I interrupt and tell him that is a famous AMERICAN joke. He says, no it comes from the vedas and is an old Sanskrit joke. We laugh and he eyes us up and down… $7US apiece. I ask if we can make a package deal… 2 for $15. He looks disappointed but says I am twisting his arm then thinks about it (2 x 7 = $14 that he accepted, and that’s less than the 15 I offer) and shakes his head. OK, he says. Jim and I head home tweeting and honking our beer trumpets. The locals laugh at us wave and cheer.
Dinner is forlorn. The streets are totally empty. We must be the last tourists in Nepal. The general strike is tomorrow. We wonder if we can get a taxi. Our bags are packed. We eat at the “Jalapeno” restaurant. I ask for double the usual dose of chilies and make it extra hot. Christopher goes to the internet cafe. I sit at home watching Indian MTV. We can’t sleep. Christopher and I decide to go to the temple of Shiva and wait for the dawn. We want it to be memorable but it is dull dank and grimy. I am watching a sweeper walk across the square below. He sweeps left across the square, then he slowly turns about sweeps right. He gets all the way across the square by the home of the virgin goddess and he turns back toward the Temple of Shiva… again sweeping right and then left. It must be emblematic of some great insight, but I am tired. We gather Jim and Gary and stand on the curb. A taxi grabs us and offer to take us to the airport. Only 200 rupees? A bargain price. He says we must be the last tourists in town.
Out the airport we get our carry on hand checked then . We get patted down with great care. They insist that they must x-ray the digital camera flash cards. The X-ray machines have signs that they would/could erase digital memory. The guards with machine guns insist on x-raying them any way. I presumed that it was the leaky EMF from the motors rather than the x-rays, so I put my chips in an anti static pouch on the top of my bag… furthest from the conveyor belt motors. Mine were OK. My son Christopher tried again to get them to hand check his chips, but they poked him in the stomach with a nasty looking machine gun, took the cards from his hand and threw them bare onto the conveyor belt. A bit abrupt. Most of his pictures were lost. (He had a photo shop in Kathmandu copy them onto CD’s. I did not like the looks of the place or the equipment. That alone might have fried the chips. I don’t know.) We get on the plane and it is another world. Spotless clean and air conditioned. We take off and as soon as the planes starts rolling, a herd of Nepal teenagers rip off their seat belts and begin running up the aisles for a last look at their home on the left/port side of the plane. It is their first plane trip and they want to look out the windows. The plane leans to the left from the weight. The stews are upset, but what can they do? The major export of Nepal is people and these guys are contract labor on their way to the Philippines. Bless them and good luck.
Part 13 – Back to Bangkok
We are in Bangkok and it is late evening. We immediately begin sweating. The “Former – New – Rotel” hotel has room and we check in. Wordlessly tired we drop right off to bed.
We arrive down at breakfast within minutes of each other like we had the same alarm clock. The Nescafé instant is not very good but it satisfies a caffeine need and we plan our attack on the city. Jim and I run off to Silom road to get some serious tourist swag. Jim gets an official Thai rip-off copy of a Rolex watch. US customs blandly allows that one copyright rip-off copy is OK per person, per trip and Jim wants to get a Rolex. The Thai vendor says that Rolex rip-offs are the very best quality and Jim settles on a price far too high by my estimation. But he is happy. I decide on a matching silk pants/shirt combination. They are black with red flames and dragons running up the sides and around. Very lively. Jim says that I am committing a fashion catastrophe and insists that I do not buy them. We stop for an early morning beer. We are giddy with the prospect of not getting killed in someone’s civil war. I am sure that Jim is as relieved as I am.
At the sidewalk bar, Jim says the he wants some more jewelry to take home. A Thai overhears us and tells us… We are in luck! Why, tomorrow all the jewelry stores in Thailand will be closed! It is near the Chinese new year and all the store owners are Chinese. We must buy today or never. He waves down a Tuk-Tuk (A tricycle taxi powered by natural gas) that will take us to the government owned jewelry store. Did we not know that all the stores get their goods from a government monopoly and just add a mark up? The taxi will take us there and will only charge us 50 cents. I bluntly tell the Thai to leave us. He should be ashamed to be lying to a tourist. Jim insists that I am being rude and the guy only wants to help us. He says I am in a bad mood over the flame dragons and should just cool it and go to the government store with him. So off we go. It is not a bad ride but every time I go to Bangkok, I get drug off to the “Official Thai Government Jewelry Store”. It is a tradition I’d hope to be spared, but Jim has never been there and I suppose it IS a tradition. What a crock! It seems more a transparent fraud than ever. There is even a sign on the wall to the effect that since it is a government monopoly, there is no bargaining permitted. Even Jim sees through the scam. Well, here we are in a very unfashionable part of town with no taxis about. We walk a bit and have another beer in a grungy street bar. We don’t care, we’ve been in worse dives and just recently too.
We wander back to Sukumvit by way of the Buddha street. The call it that because here they make beautiful Buddha Images (Thai terminology) in the traditional Sukhothai style. Also, Wat Traimit is near here. The golden Buddha… Jim, you must see it. But it is late and they closing up. I wai-ed appropriately and said: Please sir, my friend may never return to Thailand. May we see the Buddha Image before you leave? The armed guards are taking off, the vendors of the flowers and gold leaf have gone… The guy closing up looks us over and say: Yes. Go right on up. Forgive us that we cannot provide flowers or good leaf to adorn the Buddha Image. Mutual reverence and wai-ing. And, there we are. Jim is impressed. How can you not be impressed. He asks what the usual ceremony is. I tell him bow/wai three times:
To the Dharma,
to the Buddha,
to the Sangha. *
Leave the flowers and donate the gold leaf to the stone Buddha Images on the side. Jim asks, anything else? I say this the only time I’ve seen the Wat Traimit Buddha with out armed guards.
Back at the hotel, I point out the 5 foot sign that says:
1 – There is no government jewelry store
2 – Bargaining is always permitted.
3 – Don’t take the offer of a cheap Tuk-Tuk ride to a jewelry store.
4 – Beware of pick-pockets while talking to people offering excursions to such places.
Jim laughs about it and agrees that is good we went if only for the sake of tradition. At dinner we discover that Jim’s watch has gained 10 hours while the rest us us have only experienced 8 hours. While we marvel at this occurrence, it gains another 2 hours. We marvel some more. We make plans for tomorrow and head off to bed.
The next day Jim goes off to get his watch repaired. The vendor takes him to a repair shop where the repair manuals are all in french. It is a copy of a Swiss watch after all. Unfortunately, while he is a great watch repair guy, he can’t read french. I help translate and he gets it repaired. Jim is delighted with the whole experience. The repair guy said that a broken Rolex casts doubt on the reputation of the whole Thai rip-off industry. He is glad we returned so he could fix it.
Gary joins Christopher and I to wander down Silom to Sukumvit. We stop to visit the nearby Pantip shopping center. Pantip is a big eight layer square building hollowed out in the center with escalators running up/down the sides. It is the electronic gadget center of Thailand, so in we go. There is an official Apple store on the ground floor right in the middle of the atrium. We look at printers on the 2nd floor and ethernet routers on the 3rd. Everything is familiar here, no surprises. On the 4th floor the price of Compact Flash is 30% higher than in Portland. No bargains here. On the 5th floor there is software: a copy of Windows XP for $5… Windows Office costs $10. Each purchase is complete with a whole page of valid serial numbers so you don’t get license collisions when used on a network back home. I ask for Apple software and get a big smile. (Never a frown from a Thai!) Please, he says, there is an Apple Store on level one! We don’t pirate Apple software. On the 6th floor there are DVD’s for 2-3 dollars. On the 7th floor: porn DVD’s for 10-15 dollars. DVD’s are grouped by sexual predilection. Logical. The 8th floor is a food court. If anybody drops a slushy over the edge on the top floor, it will land right on an iMac down below.
Christopher and I head off for a father & son discussion of the meaning of life and the joys to be had in this fine world. We walk all about and end up in a sushi restaurant in Sukumvit. We sit and eat for hours discussing what comes next in our lives. Everybody smiles at us, the restaurant is not crowded. We wander about and find a Starbucks. It looks exactly like one in Portland or Seattle or San Francisco… or Paris. The wallpaper is the same, the tables and chairs are the same. Identical. We love it. We go sit in Lumpini park to eat ice cream and watch children feed the ducks. Christopher remembers feeding the ducks at the Oklahoma City zoo. He was very young… maybe he remembers me remembering. Evening comes and it begins to cool off. We wander down Silom and see the poster for Thai Kick Boxing. SCORE! it is right here in Lumpini park. In we go. Not to the ringside tourist seats… not us! We sit with the Thai people and eat boiled peanuts and drink beer. Sometimes a Thai cigar comes by. Pretty good cigar too! We yell and shout along with our neighbors.We place bets. It is a delight. The tourists are kept in a wire cage near the ring so as not to mingle with the ruffians acting like animals in the bleachers. After the buzz of the boxing match we discover that it is very late, we are broke and we are several miles from the hotel. We have only a pittance. A taxi comes by to give us a ride. We tell him we have no money after the kick boxing that we must walk. He laughs and gives us a ride for free… he claims to be going that way anyway to find rich tourists.
The next day we take a tour to the old capital Ayutthaya. The river cruise is nice but inland, the old capital is stifling hot. I chug iced tea as fast as I can, but I’m getting heat stroke.
I go to bed early. The hotel air conditioner can’t keep up with the heat outside and I’m sweating with my head bent over on a skinny pillow . I watch “Magnolias” which is the strangest American movie of recent times. It is dubbed in Thai with Chinese sub-titles and it seems really weird to be here in Bangkok watching it. I realize I am coming down with some strange oriental variety of the flu.
The next day at the airport we all go our separate ways. Gary goes back to Tokyo. Christopher is going to SFO and see about the next turn in his career. He had been waiting out the collapse of the tech bubble in Calcutta and Kathmandu. (Did I tell you that?) Jim and I are heading back to PDX.
Christopher has scored a traditional Thai brass rain drum that he wants to bring as checked baggage. And he has, another package he wants to take on as hand carry. A very large heavy statue all wrapped up with a taped “handle” on top. The ticket agents seems disturbed. What is it? A Buddha Image? Now there are signs all over the airport that the export of Buddha Images is forbidden. Christopher is called aside and 3~4 armed guards surround him. I am alarmed, but Christopher waves to me …No Problem. Much discussion. Agents come and go. Finally all is smiles and handshakes and wai’s. The Buddha needs to go tho San Francisco. Since it is a Buddha Image and Christopher is accompanying the Buddha Image, they get bumped to first class with a stay over in Tokyo. Free drinks and steaks the whole way. Christopher is set. We all part and are nostalgic as all hell.
I am seated next to a nice Chinese gentleman and I just hope I don’t get sick on him. My neighbor is no doubt afraid he’ll catch a strange occidental flu from me. I try not to sneeze on him. I can’t sleep and I can’t stay awake. I watch Bogart in Casablanca 3 times. Once with the sound off, once dubbed in french, once dubbed in japanese. Maybe I doze off. We arrive in SFO to clear customs and I am too destroyed to stand. The line in customs is LONG. I just want to turn myself over to quarantine, lie down and fall asleep. A customs guy is eyeing us strangely as we stand in line. He has golden eagles on his epaulettes. He is a Colonel. He comes over and says to follow him… we do. He takes us through a series of doors each with a different key. At last I’ll get a place to lie down. Suddenly we are in the international concourse. The Colonel points over at a food court and says… the hamburgers and microbrews are best over there! Ask for a Jim Special, you need food. He is right. A Jim Special is a double bacon cheese burger with extra crispy fries and Full Sail Brewing Company, Hood River Oregon… Amber Ale. I feel restored.
After the 14 hour flight from Thailand the hop to PDX is nothing. I stagger over to a phone at baggage claim and lo… There is my beloved Catherine come to meet me. Joy! We go home and I sleep for 2 days.
This is the post on the PMUG Electric Sheep that started me on writing this adventure.
If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to hear about your trip. It sounds like an interesting place to visit. Maybe you could tell us a little about it in the Vacationing section of the Living Forum since this probably isn’t the right place for it. Talk to you later,
I’d like to thank you all. I’d almost forgotten what a rare adventure we all had. Such excellent times and traveling companions, and your kind encouragement for asking me to remember all these things
Take me Home!