Monday, January 28, 2013

Inwa & Amarapura

It was perhaps too early in my recovery to push myself as I did, but I sped away from Mandalay and from caution on the seat of a bicycle to explore the regions outside of the city’s limits.  The map I had scribbled down from the internet had so vastly oversimplified the routes I needed to take it was essentially useless.  Getting to my first destination involved two sweaty hours of hard pedaling and exchanging gestures with strangers for directions.  Garlic ginger sunflower seats tucked between my bag and the bicycle’s wheel mounted basket kept me nourished and stimulated as I hustled my way to the ruined kingdom of Inwa.

After crossing one last river by ferry, I was there.  It didn’t really occur to me how disparately removed the ruins would be from one another once I got there, which meant I wasn’t about to get any respite from my tough bicycle ride.  The lush grounds were rich with old stupas, monasteries, and fortress walls, but my exhaustion prevented me from being there completely.  A constant tug of war was being waged inside my head, with my body pleading for rest and the adventurer in me cracking a whip trying to propel me forward and justify my presence there.  “Sweet mercy, I need to sit down,” against “Let’s do it!  There’s so much to see!”  Climbing the extra step for the best vantage point, venturing a hike between inviting rice paddies, or trying an exploration of shady banana groves were all very tempting but too great a chore to justify.  I was a diminished version of myself.  Luckily the locals in Inwa didn’t seem to realize you’re supposed to overcharge tourists, so I kept my tank full, gulping down sweet coconut breads, fizzy lychee soda, and these amazing puffs made form chickpea flour at a cost next to nothing.

En route to my next destination, my path was impeded by a parade: children of all ages were dressed in royal garb and marched in groups or were carried by horses wreathed by colorful garlands and shaded by umbrella carrying tenants.  Oh, and all this was set to Gangham Style – its catchy hooks having so captivated the world a day rarely goes by without my hearing it.  The parade was capped off with an elephant dance performed by two dancers inside a sequined elephant costume.  Set to a live band playing cutesy Asian pop with classical Burmese beats, the elephant twirled its trunk and kicked around in carefully timed circles to the rapture of all the village’s children.

Classical Burmese music is built on completely different foundations than anything heard in the west, and its sound is achieved by taking a xylophone, a couple bells, a few drums, half a dozen cats, and throwing all of it in the spinning back compartment of a cement truck.  Popular music on the radio sounds quite like pop radio did in America, but twenty years ago.  Cover songs are quite popular and the male youth prefer the sounds of Burmese KoRn.  Particularly when they are wearing black clothes.

Having passed it on the way to Inwa, I had little difficulty finding my way to Amanapura, where the world’s longest teak bridge permits foot traffic over Taungthaman Lake.  Long, but shallow, the lake invites  local fishermen to wade in waist deep, all the way to the middle of the lake where they hunch over in tense pose waiting for the right time to jerk their poles and seize their quarry.  The bridge is narrow enough to allow only a few pedestrians at shoulder’s width apart to pass, and the bridge crooks in the middle like a bent elbow in a long reach to the opposite bank.  The far side is so far away the bridge almost disappears from view.  From my vantage in the water, I watched a man who seemed to be a duckherd, ushering about a thousand ducks safely to the other side.  I watched the mating dances of dragonflies who remain only briefly entwined in aerial love making before breaking free and setting immediately to planting eggs on a twig unfurling from out of the water.

Foot traffic on the bridge increases just prior to sunset, and homeward bound monks and fisherman dragging bicycles carting away the day’s catch all become silhouetted dramatically by the reddening sun, and their forms blend seamlessly into the silhouette of the bridge’s emaciated timbers of teak crisscrossing beneath them .  All becomes mirrored upside-down when seen from a tiny peninsula jutting into the lake’s west bank, and the overall effect made for a beautiful and very memorable sunset.

I elected to risk getting lost again by attempting a more direct route back to Mandalay.  I kept my bearing by playing a game I called “follow the white people,” as all the sunset chasing tourists were back into busses and taxis and headed the same way I was.  If unsure, all I had to do was pause and study the passengers in passing vehicles until I felt again sure of myself.  I had a big dinner and despite my expenditure of energy throughout the day, it seemed that during the sun’s setting I had finally reclaimed my health, and I celebrated the fact by singing idiotically 90s radio hits while slipping through hectic Asian traffic – traffic that no longer intimidated me but inspirited me by its kinetic energy and challenge.  Just before I reached my hotel, I was magnetized away from my course by the lights and music of some kind of cul-de-sac sporting event.  Six men in blue and yellow jerseys were pacing in a tight circle playing wicker football hacky sack set to live music, narration, and cheers whenever the hollow ball was kept off the ground at a notable length.  With practiced twirls and contortionist kicks they took turns until one man stole the show and kept the ball suspended in the air by the exact same behind the back kick technique over and over for a few dozen bats before passing the ball along.  I would have been happy to grab a chai and join the spectators but I had to steal a shower and wash away the day’s dirt before catching an overnight train.

Despite Mandalay’s hideous train station, I was counting on the night’s commute to be a welcome relief compared to my awful bus commutes.  In my reclined chair on the train, I unfurled my shawl, leaned back deeply, and stretched out, enjoying the leg room.  I was ready for a good night’s sleep to recharge my batteries, but shortly after we left the station, I braced myself for a different kind of night.  All night long the train would alternate from the kind of smoothness typical of a train to severe bouts of convulsing back and forth up and down as if the train was skipping merrily in the air along a series of bounce houses by the roadside.  After recovering from the first series of trainquakes all of the train commuters got up to rearrange their luggage to make sure it wouldn’t later avalanche upon themselves as they made optimistic efforts to get some sleep that night.  Conditions later worsened when the night cold seeped into the car, more penetrating than my shawl could inhibit.  Unkempt tree branches scratched against the sides of the train, generating stereophonic metallic screeches.  When I reached Bagan at five thirty in the morning and latched on to the back of a pickup truck – too full to accommodate another sitter – my teeth chattered away and my legs shook violently beneath me with a restless night’s accumulated chill.  I wrapped my elbow tightly as I could around the roof rack and hoped finding a room in Bagan wasn’t so difficult that I’d once again consider homelessness as a realistic option.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


Inside the Mahamuni Paya, in the southern stretches of Mandalay sits a 2000 year old Buddha statue, and everyday worshippers lovingly press new layers of gold leaf onto every inch of its surface, save for the face.  The layers of gold, now about 15 centimeters thick, leave Buddha swollen with lumpy growths of gold tumors.  Midas-itis.  The statue can only be seen through two narrow passages, so a TV screen has been hung on a wall with a live feed of the gold pressing, so worshippers without a direct view have a place to prostrate themselves before the image of Buddha.

In the passageways leading into the surrounding markets toil an army of religious craftspeople.  In one stall a gong maker is testing tones and reshaping gongs that aren’t quite right.  Next to a room full of unfinished marble Buddhas a metal worker is tracing lines into sheet metal: the ornate fiery fringe that adorns so many buildings and relics being reduced to simple traces before me.

A short bike ride up the canal from there had me squeezing my way through a packed jade market, in a sprawl large enough to fill the city block and flanked by probably thousands of parked motorbikes.  Aside from the initial extraction, every step of jade production was represented in one place.  The first row featured long rows of raw jade, from huge unfinished cuts down to swept up shards, all laid in piles for surveyors to inspect with flashlights and magnifying glasses.  Much like the fruit hawkers, the jade venders kept their product shimmering with generous splashes of water.  Down the way, an endless row of young men using pedal operated grinders to smooth rough jade into their desired shapes, and on the far end of the market, the finished product: rings, pendants, bracelets, and lovely statues, all made of jade.

The city palace sits in a perfect square wrapped with an imposing moat, totaling at least 10 kilometers in length.  The ominous repetition of turrets and quantities of time it takes to circle the palace grounds set high expectations for what’s inside, but after security permits you into the walls it’s hard not to be somewhat underwhelmed.  The vast courtyards don’t permit foreigners to explore, but the state of neglect throughout discourages the thought.  The palace itself is fairly impressive, but merely a reconstruction of the original, having been destroyed in the fighting between Japanese against English and Indian forces in World War II.  I spent more time admiring a case of the king and queen’s jewel encrusted betel spittoons than anything else.

Hovering over the palace to the north is Mandalay hill, overlooking the otherwise flat city.  A stepped concrete path leads to the top and a pair of colossal nat guard the entrance, warding away evil spirits and signaling the ground as a holy place (nat are spirits from pre-Buddhist animist cults, now absorbed into a few version of Buddhism; in this case they look like scary dog-lions).  You have to leave your shoes at the entrance to proceed to the top, where a towering standing Buddha waits for you, pointing at where one day a great city would be built. 

Seven hundred and twenty nine whitewashed pagodas orbit Kathodaw Paya at the base of the mountain.  Each pagoda houses one giant stone slab etched in tiny Burmese script: Buddhist literature, the total of which boasts to be the largest book in the world.  While I was there, one of the pagodas also housed a young couple making out tenderly, with a leering peeping tom hanging onto the edge.  He shot me a violent sneer warning me not to give him away .  Outside the gate a lady waits with a birdcage, offering visitors a chance to pose with a bird in hand before sending it sailing away into the air triumphantly.  It’s a seemingly lovely sight until you notice that every other bird chucked skyward floats drunkenly into the side of a wall to certain injury – maybe death – and that every bird in the cage is drugged to placidity enough to sit calmly in a human hand.

That night I thumbed out some extra kyat to see a show (where the hell did all my money go? I have to change money again?).  The Moustache Brothers – only two of the three are in fact mustached – received international attention when two of them were jailed for making a joke about the military regime at a show for Aung San Suu Kyi, and again for illegally giving food to monks at a demonstration.  The brothers are now free, but it is illegal for any citizen to employ them, so they run the show out of their own home in English to tourists.  It was in the format of a traditional Burmese vaudeville show with a generous helping of political satire, featuring folk dancing, slapticky stand up, and video clips of mostly American celebrities voicing their concern and support for Burma.  Lu Maw was the only brother with English enough to run the show, and his wife had a fair amount of stage time demonstrating dances she spent years perfecting.  She had one of those odd permanent smiles that seemed like it wouldn’t falter even in child labor.  The show was interesting enough, but I found myself coloring the show more positively because of their history and bravery in face of the government; without those qualities, I think I would have interpreted the show as rubbish.  Burmese humor doesn’t seem to translate well to English, the show lacked any of the polish you’d expect from a family of lifelong entertainers, and the performers all seemed tired, passionless, and past their prime.  I think everyone – excluding the government – would be happier if the show was in Burmese for Burmese.

The name Mandalay evokes images of exotic tropical loveliness to the western ear, but that’s because of a stupid casino that has nothing to do with Myanmar.  Ultimately Mandalay proves to be a pretty typical Asian city, a noisy dusty sprawl of cheap apartment buildings without much to make it unique to itself.  In one packed day, I’ve done what seems to be just about everything there is to do for a visitor, and I’m looking forward to moving on.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Inle Lake

Inspecting my waiting sleeper bus at the Aung Mingular bus station, located an absurd distance from Yangon’s city center, I found myself breathing a deep sigh of relief; while the seats weren’t private sleeper berths, they were cushioned, separate, clean, and reclining, and I felt sure I would escape the suffering I learned to expect from my overnight Indian commutes on hard flat seat with snoring Indians leaning into my shoulder on one side and into my thigh on the other.  However, my sigh of relief would later become echoed by the weary sighs of stomach cramps.  In effort to tame my bloating budget, I had limited my dining options in Yangon to the cheaper selections that could be found on the city’s sidewalks.  I then found myself paying the difference saved another way and began my first serious case of traveler’s sickness.  How I made it to my destination without screaming at the driver to pull over and find a bathroom will remain a mystery to me, but the night proved to be long and miserable.  Further humiliating my dignity was the onboard “entertainment.”  The first leg of the journey was propelled by Burmese sketch comedy and soap operas that could take some production notes from my high school’s television broadcasting program, and as soon as these were finished it was a succession of bad covers of American pop songs from the 80s and 90s and Burmese country power ballads.  All this would be fine, I suppose, if it weren’t played at a volume so loud that if the bus plowed headlong into a tree you’d still be paying attention to the soap opera.  And the music, when it started playing, didn’t stop.  Not at midnight.  Not at three in the morning.  For the 13 hours I was on the bus, the garbage they played was so loud it chewed its way through my earplugs and rattled my brain.  I attempted escape by watching a Kazakhstani film based on the life of Genghis Khan I scored from Sophie in Kathmandu.  Halfway through the film, I had to adjust my legs and then the screen atop them, and then someone from behind me tapped my shoulder.  I turned around to find the whole back row of the bus was watching Mongol with me and wished to continue doing so.

From the bus stop, I hopped on a crowded pickup truck to Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake’s tourist village.  Through underslept eyelids I watched the sun come up over the hills and prayed that this early bird got the worm – if the worm is a reasonable rate on a room for my beating the crowds.  With an increasingly zombie like stagger, I sauntered from hotel to hotel, sometimes getting turned away before I could say a word.  The place, this town, was booked solid.  I was cursing the Myanmar government for issuing more tourist visas than hotel licenses (you see, it’s very illegal for a hotel to house foreigners without difficult to obtain licensing, making rooms both rare and expensive), and with painful defeat, I was actually starting to look for places to sleep out of doors.  Perhaps under that bridge?  I wonder if anyone ever looks behind this fence?  Finishing at least a baker’s dozen tour of filled up hotels and tired to the point that I was losing sense of reality, I finally stumbled into a place by the river that maybe had a vacancy, but I would have to wait four hours to find out.  And the one room – a double – would alone cost me as much as my five beautiful days in Hampi cost in total.  A slighter cheaper room did open up (still my most expensive to date) and I took it eagerly and embraced a hard nap and my first hot shower in two weeks.  My frequent – and I mean frequent – visits to the toilet made it clear that the day was going to be an off day, and I adjusted my itinerary accordingly.

Determined not to lose another day, I woke up the next day to a mild breakfast and not so mild medication.  In the lobby I found someone to share the expensive room with (something I had hoped to accomplish the day prior but was too wretched to attempt), then I set about doing what I came to do: I was going to enjoy a relaxing day cruise of Inle Lake even if it killed me.  It took more time that I had hoped, but I eventually found a family by the river with a spare seat in a boat they were booking, sparing me the costs of having to hire a boatman for the day all on my own.  I was then adopted by an Irish/Belgian couple and their homeschooled son.  Oh yeah, and this was on Christmas.  “A very Myanmar Christmas,” I wished my adopted family.  I probably wasn’t as good as company as I might have been otherwise, but we all got along just great.  I was worried I was pushing myself too hard too soon, but as our narrow boat chugged its way to the lake, I discovered there was something oddly soothing about the rapid vibrations of the cheap Chinese motor to my ailing gut, and all day I felt best when I was in the boat.

Lush floating greens foregrounded great misty mountains to the east and to the west.  Just past the mouth of the lake we came across a foursome of fisher boats being paddled about in a technique the lake is famous for: while standing on one leg with the other wrapped around a long oar and lending the driver additional thrust.  One of the fishermen posed nimbly for us with one leg high in the air supporting a conical wicker fishing net.

Scooting further along, we came to the first of a series of villages, all balancing on stilts high above the water.  The midair porches led down to small canoes so the tenants can get around.  Improbable seeming, but very beautiful, these floating neighborhoods proved just how bountiful the lake is for the people that lived there, some 70 thousand of them, and the floating villages shocked me repeatedly with their expansiveness.  Aside from fisherman, the lake villages boast a population of craftspeople and farmers which tend to vast and verdant fields of floating vegetation.

We stopped at a weavers’ shop where we watched step by step how pulpy threads drawn from the lotus plant got wound into thread and then woven into intricate patterns by complicated wooden looms powered by foot pedals.  In a floating cigarette factory girls were rolling flavored tobacco into banana leaves bound with sticky rice glue.  I tried one flavored with anise and while puffing it to ash I learned more about the traditional “sunscreen” so popular in Myanmar.  Thanaka is a cosmetic paste made from a tree.  A barkless chunk of the tree is rubbed against a pizza sized stone made splashed with a small amount of water.  The secretions from the plant matter thicken the water into a hazelnut colored paste which is then applied to the face for purported health benefits.  The paste is either applied in thoughtful patterns – my favorite is a single leaf on either cheek – or in a sloppy mess on smiling Burmese faces.

Despite my waves of intestinal throbbing, the pain proved to be manageable and bathrooms were frequent enough for me to preempt disaster.  I ended up feeling grateful that if I had to be sick, it happened somewhere the scenery could be enjoyed while sedentary.

I tried to muster strength enough for a bike ride the next day, but limited energy reserves and multiple dead ends had me coming back to the ugly tourist village to rest up for the next journey.  From the back of the pickup truck on the way back to the bus station, I viewed the countryside’s beauty with great admiration and felt bitter I wasn’t healthy enough to taste more of it during my visit.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Stuck in Yangon

I was hoping for a quick in-and-out situation when I had returned to Yangon – take care of a few errands and be on the first bus upcountry – but all the buses were booked solid.  The third travel agency I visited was able to save me the one seat on the one bus they had left for the end of the next day.  I felt thoroughly finished with Yangon and eager to move on, yet I was stuck and the feeling of immobilization made me clench my teeth with frustration.  A mere consolation, this gave me some time to be productive and I gave myself a to-do list to pass the time, and a couple of off days probably wouldn’t be bad for my pathetically optimistic budget.

Freed from the duties of the sightseer, my pace had a deliberate slowness to it that I hadn’t felt in some time, and I was better able to soak in the city’s atmosphere and get closer to its people.  Very quickly my temperament changed from bored anguish to curious contentment as I watched monk boys thumb through sidewalk racks of pirated DVDs and I helped myself to Myanmar’s devilishly good street food.  With an appetite that’s becoming increasingly difficult to suppress, I have become terribly fond of Burmese pancakes – served either savory with nuts and green onions or sweet with thick slabs of coconuts.  After stuffing my face with pancakes I stopped at a noodle stand to wash it all down with Chinese green tea.  Here, mealtimes are spent at tightly packed sidewalk stalls sitting on tiny pastel colored plastic furniture I would normally think is built for children.  After downing my third cup of tea, I took my secondary wad of cash out from my chest pocket (I’ve started keep my large and small denominations separate – it helps my bargaining power in getting change when I need it (It can be terribly difficult to have change made, so I keep my sanity by making a game of it)), but the sweet guys there refused any payment.  Again, I’m having a hard time getting people to take my money – though the reasons this time are infinitely more pleasant.

I then proceeded to play a game; let’s call it hot & cold charades.  I would stop someone on the street with a friendly “Mingalaba”, take off my hat, pantomime cutting my hair with scissors, and point in a wild circle with a confused look on my face.  After a few rounds of the game I found myself getting closer and closer until a group of gentlemen playing that popular sidewalk bottle cap game gestured for me to turn around, so that I could see the barbershop behind me.  No longer coping with Nepal’s chills, it was time to kiss my beard goodbye, so I drew up an illustration of what I was hoping to accomplish and handed the sheet to the wild haired young Burmese barber.  After double checking a couple of the finer points in my sketch, he then took electric trimmers to my face and glowing tufts of brown hair tumbled down to join the mess of black on the floor.  Finished, I stood up and whipped out my money clip.  Once more, a young man smiled and twisted an open palm in my direction.  He wasn’t going to take my money either.

On a tip, I headed toward the Chinese temple by the river for sunset.  I crossed the street and took a vantage point along a long gangplank leading to a pair of three storied commuter boats.   The place was simply abuzz with activity: the city’s traders making their mass exodus back to their villages across and up the river.  I hugged the rails of the causeway to stay out of the way of streams of shirtless and tattooed workers hustling huge loads of pineapples, coconuts, and everything else in large bundles upon their hunched shoulders.  A thick layer of sweat made the lines of their sinewy muscles shine in the sinking sunlight.  Below the causeway long motorboats rushed in to meet the long lines of commuters waiting at the river bank, to take them to the other side.  Each motorboat was then tailed by a cloud of seagulls hoping to catch prawn chips and rice puff from villagers enjoying late afternoon snacks.

I decided to hop onto one of the larger cruisers to try a different perspective from the top decks, but just getting there proved to be a journey.  Every floor was so packed with people, goods, and livestock, every few meters of progress was a separate gauntlet to navigate and the very air was thicker with humidity than outside the boat.  The bustle outside couldn’t nearly match the clamor inside with tired traders noisily vying for comfortable and disappearing real estate and hawkers of every sort weaved through the crowds with nasally pitches hoping to make the day’s next sale.  I only added to the spectacle and was greeted with much amusement and perhaps a little annoyance for my trying to navigate the throng of their daily commute.  I got off the boat just as the deckhands were untying the mooring cables for departure, and then the sun was nearly at its climax.  Very soon, the whole world was depicted in graceful black silhouettes basking in a golden solar luminescence, textured with the smoke of motors and the white ripples of the river.  It was wonderful as I stood on the bank delighting in the beautiful minutiae of other peoples’ lives, and I kept my finger hot on the shutter button the whole time.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


“Ee,” the sweet lady at the San Francisco hotel in Bago, creaked open a dubious smile as she divulged to me the secrets of how to see all of Bago’s great sights without paying the hefty government entrance fee.  With the city map laid out on the reception desk, she showed me which entrances would permit me to skirt around ticket checkers or when to arrive so I show up before or after they do.  While the government’s made some strides in favor of its people over the last decade, it still has a long way to go before it earn its people’s respect, and Ee and I both were happy to give them the finger by cheating them out of admission costs.

On a rented bicycle, I raced ahead of the ticket checkers to the Shwethalyang Buddha, a cheerful Buddha laid on his side, partially perched on an arm.  The soles of his feet are absurdly ornate, but most remarkable about him is the fact that he’s 55 meters long.  His little finger is 3.05 meters long and his upwardly curved lips run 2.29 meters across.  A slightly smaller replica sits outdoors to the south.

I got lost somewhere near the Bago River and let myself into a monastery to look around.  A kindly monk by the name of Ottama invited me to sit with him and we talked at length of the political and spiritual state of his country.  He showed me clips on his smart phone of Obama’s recent visit to Myanmar, greeted by Myanmar’s champion for democracy Aung San Suu Kyi.  Ottama walked me through some of the Burmese pleasantries I hadn’t picked up yet (a few of my mental tricks are Yao Ming Ali Baba for hello and Jay-Z Ding Bat Day for thank you).  After he scribed in curvy Burmese characters the word for vegetarian, he insisted that I join the monks for their daily lunch and my face was promptly stuffed with rice, peanuts, corn, okra, and this lovely salad made from tomatoes, green onions, and crispy sun dried potatoes.  Three dozen young monks ate their rice and tried not to stare at the westerner.  In Myanmar, there’s an expectation that young men should spend two periods of their life participating in monastic life even if they don’t become fulltime monks – once as adolescents and once again as young adults.

Losing myself further in the outlying villages, I found myself entertaining the locals simply by being there, and their looks of happy curiosity were a welcome change from the burning penetrating stares I became accustomed to in India.  Freshly cut watermelon rescued me from the afternoon sun.

Later, at another Stupa, one of the same name and design as Yangon’s greatest, but 14 meters taller and completely devoid of westerners, I was battling with timidity about taking pictures of monks when a couple started taking pictures of me and we had fun gawking at each other and making unintelligible attempts at communicating in each other’s languages.  Outside, men young and old played a game we could compare with hacky sack, suspending a hollow wicker soccer ball in the air with their feet.

Many of the people here have pasty markings on their faces, sometimes in deliberate patterns and sometimes in a nonchalant mess, and it wasn’t until the third time someone told me it was sunscreen that I believed it.  Villagers peddled their wares from large metal discs balanced on their heads and lovely young women shaded themselves with umbrellas in not-quite-Chinese style dresses.

Now armed with that magic word gifted to me by Ottama, the three syllables that formed a key – “Ta-da-loh” – I now felt brave enough to venture forth from the tourist restaurants and join the English-less locals for mealtime.  “Ta-da, I’m a vegetarian,” and with a courteous nod, my restaurant hosts would come back with plates of surprises.  First noodles with fried egg, cauliflower, and spicy onions, later a tin with rice, potato soup, three mystery sides of varying consistency and color, and so much tasty chai.

I had originally planned on venturing further south to enjoy a jungle cruise and a day long pilgrimage to a golden rock sitting atop a mountain, but my feet are still recovering from Nepal, I was unsure how much of the cash I brought was viable by ridiculous Burmese standards, and I had overheard people having great difficulty booking rooms and busses in the more popular locations up north, so I felt behooved to cancel my southern itinerary so that I would be better prepared for my time in the north.   I booked it back to Yangon to be ready for the great spectacles spiraling from Mandalay in the north.

Monday, January 14, 2013


Walking through the markets of downtown Yangon, I passed baskets full of chicken heads and unfamiliar fruits and vegetables that could be props in a science fiction film.  I think that was maybe a pile of pig anuses.  Men wearing sarongs with faces streaked with white stripes, some kind of paint or sunscreen, squat on the sidewalk playing a game with bottle caps on a grid etched with chalk.  Young lady monks with shaved heads and pink robes fluttered about with donation bowls, alms for the monastery.  Bicycle taxis with sidecar seats escorted their fares past buildings under construction, crisscrossed with scaffolding of bamboo.  Spindly golden spires reach up from giant half dome stupas high above the cityscape and catch and hold the eye from miles away, and the wide and easy smiles of the people of Myanmar have me believing them to be the friendliest on the planet.  Smiles despite the poverty.  Despite their despised oppressive rulers that can freeze their assets and send them to jail for speaking ill of the government.  The people of Myanmar seem eager to please, proud of their culture, and excited to finally participate in international relations.

Before landing, I was expecting Yangon to be something of a hole, having heard of the country’s infrastructural issues and long sequestered history, but right away I was blown away by the majestic golden façade of their international airport, emblazoned with fiery gold leaf and delicately patterned in a way I’m starting to become very familiar with.  I had read that getting downtown from the airport via public transit was something of a nightmare to figure out for someone new to the country, and reluctantly counted bills for a cab, but when I saw the line of young boys in sarongs holding placards with the names of those soon to arrive, I thought I could score a free ride and save myself the trouble of scouting for a pad.  Voila, the first boy I talked to eagerly called his hotel and reserved me a spot in his dorm.

The pair of families he was waiting to pick up, two European moms from Hong Kong with two kids each, ended up adopting me for the next 24 hours in our first foray into Myanmar.  I like experiencing the dynamics of different traveling groups and I admired the bravery of these moms dragging their kids around to such remote places.  The kids were very bright, learning Mandarin and Cantonese in school, inquisitive to both charming and taxing capacities, and great fun to travel with.  Their youthful lens on the world lended a contagious energy to my own experience and made little things exciting again.  They loved the dilapidated state of the first bus we rode in on, and so I loved it too.  Being based in Asia and well-traveled, the moms scored me many tips to help me fill out the dark spots in my itinerary and I got their contact information so I could rendezvous with them when I got to Hong Kong.

Yangon has Hindu temples, mosques, cathedrals, and even a synagogue, but the country is predominantly Buddhist – almost 90% so.  Connecting the dots between sights in Yangon, I’m learning the people of Myanmar – do I say Myanmarans?  Myanmarians?  Myanmartians?  -- take Buddha idolatry to the next level.  The enormous golden stupas that dot the city grid house Buddhas of every variety.  Handheld porcelain Buddhas line the way to behemoth Buddhas.  Lazily reclining Buddhas watch over rooms full of smirking Buddhas seemingly teaching other Buddhas Buddhism, and enshrined Buddhas with flashing casino light halos watch over Buddhists bent over in shrunken prostration.

As I booked my flights before leaving for Asia, it was my expectation that Myanmar was going to be a backpackers paradise and that my dollars would take me far; the trouble is, I’m having tremendous difficulty getting anyone to take my dollars.  You see, the government places heavy foreigner tariffs on housing, transit, and access to monuments and these institutions only accept U.S. dollars – but if the greenback in question has a tiny stain on its border, a miniscule rip, or even a persistent wrinkle, it’s no longer accepted as legal tender.  And once you’re in the country there’s no practical way to withdraw U.S. dollars: there are no ATMs that accept foreign cards and so I got all my U.S. cash ahead of time, changed over from Rupees in Bengaluru.  At the entrance of Yangon’s largest stupa, the Shwedagon Paya, I watched with growing dismay as the ticket staff stacked bill after bill of rejected currency on the counter.  All single dollar denominations.  It’s completely maddening, and I’m very worried about being upstream and without cash that anyone will accept.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Kuala Lumpur

I had originally no prior notion about Kuala Lumpur.  The only thing I had filed in my brain’s databanks was an image of Will Ferrell in a curly wig licking a lollipop and chanting hypnotically, “kill the prime minister of Malaysia!”  While I was expecting to be surprised, there’s only so much you can do to preempt surprise and I was indeed surprised from my short stay over a 16 hour long connection.  Still coming down from my high in Nepal, my first shock was working electricity after sun down, then by how very clean everything was, and not just in comparison to India and Nepal.  Kuala Lumpur, or at least gauging by the parts I visited, is one of the cleanest cities I’ve ever seen.  It had wonderful things like street signs and rubbish bins (now I’m comparing to India and Nepal), and there were actually people up and socializing when I arrived in Chinatown looking for a room at one in the morning.

Thawing out in the Malaysian heat, the accumulation of sweat and dirt from a week in Nepal was awoken by the humidity, causing an unpleasant smell that I was happy to relieve with a long overdue shower.  The jungle heat had me reintroducing a technique I pioneered in Italy years before, where I wash a single outfit in the bathroom sink and then wear it to sleep.  It helps keep me cool while I’m sleeping, the clothes are dry when I wake up, and it saves me the time and expense of having someone else clean my laundry.

I had Malay food for the first time ever in the morning: a crazy good dish called Nasi Campur.  You are served a plate with a big ball of coconut rice, orbited by peanuts, cabbage, tomatoes, cucumbers, an egg, and I forget what else.  It would have been a decent enough meal on its own, but then you go to a generous buffet table to smother your plate in whatever else you feel like – in my case, a perfectly spicy yellow curry with carrots and tempeh.

Malaysia is a predominantly Islamic country (in fact, there are more Asian Muslims than Middle Eastern Muslims), with a generous dose of religion and populace from both India and China.  I had just enough time to visit a place of worship from each region.  In an enormous and new mosque (it made me think of an Islamic answer to American mega-churches), Masjid Negara, I was terribly smitten by Islam’s love of geometry, with vaguely floral geometric designs of the highest intricacy carved into the surfaces of its towers, domes, and mathematical sculptures.

In a relatively new Hindu temple, the Sri Mahamariamman, I was hypnotized by its façade: a distinctly south Indian design, but made with cement, in immaculate condition to contrast the many ruins I’ve seen, and most surprisingly, abundant with color.  A typically complicated pantheon of Hindu deities brought to life with distinct colors for their hair, skin, saris, sashes, swords, and instruments populated the surface of the temple, and the color lended them so much more personality than I’ve seen in depictions before.  I curse my lack of time that I couldn’t study each character separately or sit and enjoy the music churning within.

And then I blitzed through my first Taoist temple, a strictly gold and red affair wafting with incense and new rituals I’ve never seen but hope to understand later.

I wish that was all I had to say about my time in Kuala Lumpur, but getting back to the airport to complete my connection to Myanmar proved to be a complete debacle, and I’m just grateful I got to airport on time.

The hour long shuttle from Chinatown to the airport leaves from KL Sentral (there’s a lot of funny spelling in Kuala Lumpur – my favorite is “teksi” for taxi), and on my walk back I could feel the sweat building more quickly than a whole week in Nepal could accomplish, so I periodically ducked my head into any air conditioned bus pointed in the same direction while parroting, “KL Sentral?”  Eventually a driver said yes with a beckoning wave of his arm, and after confirming “KL Sentral” three times with him, I thought I was on my way.

Forty minutes passed – much longer it would have taken to walk to Sentral – and the driver’s placating reassurance no longer kept me placated.  Asking around, another customer confirmed my suspicion that we weren’t head to Sentral at all, rather some city hilariously named Klang.  I had the driver halt the bus so I could cross the freeway and call a teksi from a Shell station.

A quite friendly driver scooped me up and took me to KL International, quadrupling the cost of my once cleverly cheap stay in the city.  My timing would have been quite good… if I was at the right airport.  It turned out my international flight was out of the domestic airport, a mistake I would have felt worse aobut making if it weren’t for the fact that the airport code on my ticket didn’t match either airport’s code.  I hopped on an inter-airport shuttle and held my breath until I was finally on my plane bound for Yangon.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Swayambhunath & Patan

When I had returned to Kathmandu, there was light enough in the sky for one more tiny pilgrimage, so I set my sights on Swayambhunath, yet another beautiful and holy hilltop Buddhist monument.  Halfway up its mighty stairwell, I found myself wondering why Buddhists were such masochists and imagined they must have rock solid thighs for all the constant climbing they have to accomplish.  The place was crawling with sneering monkeys, and their omnipresence in holy places had me deciding that monkeys were by far the most pious of creatures.  Even in my fit state the steps were challenging, and I emanated waves of sympathy to the elderly I passed clinging to handrails in their persistent ascents.  Nearing the top, Buddha’s penetrating eyes stared right through me, gleaming from the top of the lofty stupa and framed by two distinctly Indian style stone towers.  Never to build stupas without epic origin tales, Swayambhunath marks the location where a giant lotus flower erupted from the valley back when it was a great lake (and on this point the lore actually matches the geology (the lake part, not necessarily the magical giant lotus)).

Turning around, I had the setting sun behind me, a perfect stage light for the endless sprawl of dusty bricks and rivers that is Kathmandu.  I thought about all the lives filling and moving about these bricks and my heart grew heavy.  Nepal faces all the economic problems as India to the south, but with some additional impediments to growth and recovery.  Landlocked with only mildly sympathetic neighbors, Nepal has no way to efficiently export the fruits of its cheap labor and goods without the disincentives of high tariffs.  Like elsewhere, the valley’s population is exploding faster than its ability to keep up, and worse, the rapidly expanding metropolis in the middle is growing with tragic neglect to the valley’s vulnerability to terrible earthquakes.  An estimated 60% of the buildings today could be toppled if the city was hit by the severity of one of the larger earthquakes that have hit it in the past, ruining more lives than I care to think about.

I did a few farewell laps around the stupa alongside rosary clutching monks and headed down the steps spilling back down to the city, stopping to scoop up a cheap mantra engraved necklace, cylindrical like a prayer wheel, and then some whiskey and soda to celebrate being alive along with my couch hosts.

The next day I set out for the neighboring city of Patan, a once rival city-state that eventually became absorbed into greater Kathmandu, well after a conqueror annexed the territories and made Kathmandu the capital of his kingdom.  The royal center of Patan, cleverly named Durbar Square, just like Kathmandu’s, is less epic in scope than its neighbor’s and therefore less attractive to the tourists.  I liked it quite a bit better.  A beautiful palace courtyard was temporarily housing some rather good international modern art.  Typical of Newari culture, there were temples paying tribute to both Buddha and Shiva alike, as well as many deities of the animist traditions that predated Hinduism in the region.  In an unmarked hole in the wall I enjoyed a traditional Newari lunch.  First an unremarkable egg fried onto a slice of bread, then curried chickpeas and very spicy potatoes that I piled onto a bowl of beat rice.  Beat rice is rice dehydrated and crushed to flakes, and ends up looking like dehydrated mashed potatoes, but with a noteworthy crunch.  I was told the rice was prepared this way to make it easier to smuggle food to Tibetan refugees living in the hills, as beat rice required no cooking and thus no flame that could give away their location at night.

Wandering in a spiral around the square, I saw a temple where every bit of its surface area was etched with identical depictions of cross legged Buddha – there were surely thousands of him.  Nearby, in the famously gorgeous Golden Monastery, I watched the head monk, an adorable little boy, fumble about the day’s rituals, lacing a deity’s three heads with marigolds and placing donated money ornamentally about the altar.  Sauntering north to a towering five tiered pagoda, I happened upon a tiny festival. To music and copious amounts of incense – whole bundles being tossed upon flames – worshippers were enjoying picnic lunches while surrendering a portion of their meals decoratively on bright green leaves as offerings to the gods (hopefully the gods were hungry).  And on the other side of the pagoda, a procession of tiny girls dressed ornately in makeup and bright red dresses, not unlike wedding saris, was parading down a column and then sat in rows to receive sweets and other gifts.  Another onlooker, one of the fathers, confirmed my suspicion that the whole ordeal was some kind of coming of age ceremony – though given the size of the girls I couldn’t reason just what age they might be coming to.  To my surprise he kept referring to that thing “girls do once a month, every month.”  These girls couldn’t have had their periods already!  And also what an odd thing to announce and celebrate so publicly.  They were too tiny – but Sophie would later explain to me that many Nepalese children are actually quite a bit older than they look, as they don’t reach nearly the mature heights that westerners do (oh, that reminds me when I was talking to two little village girls in Dhulikhel and they were chided in passing by an elderly woman no taller than they were – apparently the world’s smallest adult lives in Nepal somewhere).


My route back home (my hosts had since moved while I was on my mini-trek), had me passing once more by Pashupatinath, which was the location of the burning ghats for Shivaites.  After stealing a peek inside the main temple, forbidden to non-Hindus, and catching a view of the magnificent rump of a giant golden bull, Shiva’s vehicle, I noticed the sounds of drums and chanting coming from the ghat area.  The temple’s lights were on, despite the city being in blackout mode, so I decided to investigate.  I had since lost my pass to the place so I walked past the ticket gate with a briskness that left me unperturbed.  Halfway up the ghats on the opposite bank was a series of brightly robed dancers performed in unison with large fans.  Next to them, a delightfully crusty old Sadhu paced forward and back waving his hands and clapping occasionally, probably intoxicated.  I couldn’t figure out if his presence was integral to the performance or something he decided to add all on his own, but I couldn’t take my eyes off of him.  The music was so well mixed on the speakers I didn’t realize it was being performed live until I saw drummers and a singer bleating into a microphone.  When the musicians finished, sections of the audience paced down to the water bank to offer prayers and cast flower pedals down the stream.  With the enchanting rituals and stark nighttime lighting in a place I had already fallen in love with, it ended up being a truly beautiful series of moments and a perfect last night for me in Nepal.

A failed attempt to connect to the internet (no power of course), two laps around Boudda (where white hippies were laying hands on locals, talking in tongues and describing how “now your chest pain is gone, your headaches are gone, cancer is gone”), and a jaunt through a forest back to the airport, and I was back in the air.  The pilot mentioned that visibility should be such that we could see Everest from the left side of the plane.  I was on the right side.  Was I going to get to see Everest after all?  When someone on the opposite side got up to use the toilet, I pounced upon his seat and pressed my face to the window.  I scanned the jagged horizon and fixed my eyes on what appeared to be the highest peak on the range.  Snapped a few photos.  It was difficult to tell.  Did I see it?  Mt. Everest?  Having to ask the question deflated the sense of fulfillment I was hoping to achieve – the value of seeing anything for that matter.  To think I perhaps saw something important, but wouldn’t know without a reference, as if I needed someone to tell me whether I experienced something or not.  I sat for a while frustrated before realizing there was someone right next to me waiting patiently for his seat back.  I resolved to later check my photos against Google image search to determine whether I did in fact see Everest, and gave the gentleman his seat back.

(I neglected to check until about two weeks later, but it turns out I did see Mt. Everest.  Yay.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dhulikhel, Namobuddha, & Panauti

On the cramped bus halfway from Kathmandu to Dhulikhel, I was sizing up a colossal statue of Shiva overlooking the valley.  Based on the relative size of the buildings adjacent, I would have to guess it was about 10 stories tall and could be seen for miles.  Dhulikhel, my destination, is an old Newari village with supposedly impressive sunrise views of the Himalayas and an important gateway for trekkers or those looking for the one passage into Tibet.  The Newari people are somewhere in between Hindus and Buddhists, with Buddha and Hanuman sharing seats in the same pantheon alongside animist spirits from religions past; they treat religion like it’s a buffet, with a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

After I arrived in the village and found the cheapest room in town (complete with questionable bed sheets and a washroom that leaves you feeling dirtier than you were before) I had nothing in particular on my agenda until the next day’s sunrise.  In my attempts to make the most of my whirlwind tour, I had always kept my days packed, but now I had a whole day with nothing to accomplish.  No don’t-miss sight, palace, museum, show, or culinary delight.  Just me and a village.  So I spent the day ambling about listlessly, trying to enjoy the calm that’s become so scarce in my life recently.  I talked to locals, read a book, geared up for my little trek the next day, and drank a lot of tea.  The trouble with being a westerner among villagers is your presence divides them into two camps.  Either they don’t know  any English and you’re limited to brief nonverbal encounters – I helped an old woman get a ridiculous stack of wood onto her back that she balanced in place with a sling attached to her forehead – or they know English because knowing English helps them hustle westerners out of their rupees.  

There is a very small third camp that know English and are simply sociable, just wanting to get to know a traveling foreigner, but the pain is they have the same opening lines as the hustler, and you’re always anticipating the inevitable, “come look at my shop,” or, “ look at this bird I carved; it’s only 200 Rupees.”  It’s enough to make a cynic out of anyone, can be very wearing on your patience, and diminishes the value of trying to connect with locals when traveling.  And they learn to hustle young.  Many poor kids are instructed on how to make warm connections with foreigners before begging for money, a sad attempt at wining and dining before the actual begging, which I’m sure is much more successful at begetting sympathy than the point blank, “RUPEES!?!” approach.  There’s an unwritten script they follow, and it varies from region to region.  It can be comical how word for word identical many of the conversations I’ll have with touts in one place.  As if rehearsing a scene on stage, you know what they’re going to say before they say it.  But sometimes it takes you by surprise, and I’ve had many lovely seeming moments putter out like a leaky balloon by beggarly punch lines.  It’s a struggle, but it’s worth holding out for the occasions that are all the way genuine, as those are the ones you get to carry with you.

There’s little to do in a village with no electricity after dark and I had no difficulty making it to bed early enough to enjoy a complete rest well before sunrise, even if it was a full five hours before I had been waking up in the days preceding.  I planned every step I’d have to take in the morning so there wouldn’t be any delay, and after my alarm went off and I swiftly left my room, I was aghast to find there was no way out of the hotel.  Every door had been sealed and locked.  I was outraged, not only because this impediment was keeping me from the main reason I came to this damn village, but also because of my very American concern for liability.  I imagined a fire killing everyone inside because the owners locked it down tight.  I almost jumped out the second story window, but reasoned it was both too great a risk and a little too dramatic.  I found a woman upstairs sweeping the stairwell who unlocked the front and saw me take off like a racehorse at the gate.

Walking briskly, I commanded the attention of some stray dogs, dogs I was discovering didn’t much care for tall white people wearing hats.  They let me know with growls and bared fangs, aggressive to the point I thought they might actually attack.  A young Newari man behind me scared them off with rocks and hisses.  He was on his morning walk, also to the climb the hills under Kali shrine where I was headed, so we kept each other company, exchanging conversation between our uphill panting.  It turned out he has family all over the states and tries every year for the diversity lottery.  He also sings classical Newari songs and plays the violin, but not at the same time.

We had missed the beginning of the sunrise, but it turned out not to be so much of a loss.  The most captivating part, the lower mandible of frosted jagged peaks that composed the most domineering stretch of Himalayan mountains within view, lay further to the north and their viewing would actually benefit from the sun’s further ascension.  East by southeast where the sun was rising, its warm light was trapped in lagoons of mist hovering between the valley’s hills, imbuing them with a mysterious glow.  I learned that such a clear view of the Himalayas was a very rare thing outside of December, and counted myself lucky about my timing, despite the additional dose of cold weather the season brings.  I did not, however, get to see Everest among the peaks.  It lays quite a bit more eastward than I realized when I planned my trip, requiring a flight to get to a vantage point and therefore more costly in time and dollars than I could afford.  So I tried not to be too disappointed, despite the withering of my assumption that my eyes would fall upon our planet’s highest peak during my time in Nepal.

Most of the villagers in the hills are farmers, and they leave their mark on the country side with endlessly tiered farm rows, swooping up and down each hillside with right angle gradients, as if a topographical map had sprung upward to life in a way that was manifested as literally as possible – that is to say without the smooth natural curves we normally expect from hill surfaces.  Flowing strips of rice, soy, grass, and corn were woven about everywhere you looked, and made for very hypnotizing hiking scenery.

The dramatically fluctuating temperature in the Kathmandu valley demanded constant adjustment of my clothing as I passed in and out of shade, as my pace changed to according to the incline, and as the sun climbed higher in the sky.  My shawl popped in and out of my bag, my scarf snaked around from around my face, to a bundle around my neck, then loose around my shoulders, and back again, and my layered sleeves shot up and down my arms like pistons in an engine.  Occasionally a bus would pass, overflowing with Nepalese sticking out of windows and stacked on the roof.  A few were party busses full of young people on their way to a plateau blasting Rihanna remixes that filled the valley for all the goats, cows, and chickens to enjoy.

Frosted in gold by the backlighting of the sun, my destination came full into view after one last bend of the forested ridge trail.  Mounted at the top of a sizable ridge overlooking the Kathmandu valley, lay the Tibetan Monastery, Namobuddha.  A steep shaded path marches up the side, lined every step of the way by brightly colored prayer flags woven through the dense boughs of low crooked trees.

The noise and movements of weekend tour groups at first diminished the beautiful piety of the place.  Busloads of students from the capital were absurdly thorough about having their photos taken in front of every inch of the monastery, no matter how mundane the subject.  The manager’s office seems like a good place to strike a cool gangsta pose.  How about this picture of another monastery hanging on the wall of the monastery?  Let’s get a picture of me being the duck faced club hopping thug that I am in front of this picture of another monastery while I’m in this monastery?  Oh, we forgot to vogue out in front of this fern.  Good stuff.

Eventually they filed back into their tour busses and the hilltop ambience of monastic solitude slowly seeped back to fill the halls.  At the very top of the hill lay a stupa where you can listen to the hushed thunder of ten thousand prayer flags being tugged by the mountain wind.  They are tied so densely together and so close to the ground you need to use amateur acrobatics to circle the stupa completely.  The stupa marks the place were supposed a prince happened upon a hungry tigress about to lay upon a young girl, so that she may feed her young waiting in a nearby cave.  The prince empathized with the tiger and offered his own flesh to save the child, and was therefore canonized by the Buddhists.  The gilded main hall of Namobuddha is dazzlingly red, and then made more vibrant with heaps of intricate gold detail.  After the sun set on the valley, I eagerly looked forward to sitting in on my second puja ritual.  Again I listened to the practiced low grumblings of monks in prayer and marveled at the precision in which they evoked that distinct sound of calculated chaos, read from scrolls written centuries ago.  With the shock lessened by increasing familiarity, I watched the monks’ performance with greater scrutiny and what I saw was someone demystifying.  Some of the monks, they seemed bored.  I saw chuckling when the altar boy dropped something.  I caught one taking a thorough pick at his nose.  Puja isn’t performance art, it’s ritual, and a chore, and while the atmosphere it creates crushes me deeply in the best way possible, it’s merely habit for them.  Seeing Puja this way made it seem a tad less otherworldly and a lot more human.

When the last flush of color fled the valley after the sun and the horizon no longer visibly cleft the ground from the heavens, the folds of the now black hills became dotted villagers’ gas lamps, blinking softly and echoing the stars in the sky.  The monastery has two guesthouses for foreign travelers, one for those in long term monastic retreats and one for those passing through like myself.  Either way, the guests are invited to join the monks for dinner in their mess hall, a long cafeteria that would be otherwise unremarkable if it weren’t for the many tiny Buddhas carved into the walls.  Over a thousand by my rough calculations.  I was expecting a meal of Daal Bhaat – a simple rice and yellow lentils dish that many Nepalese eat for breakfast and dinner every day of their lives – but was treated instead to a savory stew with the most wonderfully thick noodles and served with an optional and very potent red chili sauce that I believe I was the only foreigner to partake of.  Breakfast was black-eyed peas served with a large knot of deliciously fluffy dough and Tibetan tea, which is made unpleasantly thick with butter. 

I wished I could stay longer, but I had to keep moving.  I found the monks were very polite and they were helpful when I needed guidance, but I was hoping to make a better connection and learn more about their lifestyle and beliefs.  It seemed they preferred to keep to themselves, so I left without having figured them out to the extent I was hoping for, but I later figured there was still a lot of Asia to cover, so I had nothing to despair about.

Hiking westward now, I paused to snack on some masala flavor Lay’s potato chips in a village called Sangkhu, and I was approached by two young village girls on their way from school.  They were probably 12 and six, and the older of the two spoke English quite well and served as a translator when her illiterate and widowed aunt, with a face more lined than the hillside farms around us, squatted down on the road next to us.  The aunt wanted to know if I could get her son a job in America, and threw her hands in the air in mock despair when she was told I don’t have a job for myself in America.  Then she said I should marry her daughter, as she’s very beautiful and hard working too.  I couldn’t be sure if she was joking or not.  Nepalese women are indeed hard working.  In all hours of the day, I could see them hunched over in farm rows or transporting absurd loads of goods on their backs supported with forehead slings.  I very rarely saw men toiling in the fields, and I’ve read women are still regarded somewhat like property in rural Nepal, expected to work all day in the fields and yet still be home fix meals for the family.

My last stop before returning to Kathmandu was a very well preserved Newari village called Paunati.  With aching feet I came to where two rivers met and the old village began, but found myself heartbroken when I arrived.  The myriad temples and shrines around the ghat lined river were entirely lovely on their own and at the moment alone for me to explore, but like so many other places I’ve been to, the place was just drowned in garbage.  Ducks swimming in the river have to navigate tiny islands of bags, styrofoam, and plastic bottles, islands that became impenetrable continents of trash further downstream.  This, all in the same water so revered they bring their dying elderly to douse their feet in it and then latter scatter their ashen remains when they’re gone.  In my short two months in Asia, I’ve seen this rampant environmental carelessness over and over and should now expect nothing better, but somehow the neglect hit me worse there in Panauti, and I have waking terrors of nations of people up to their necks in their own shedded refuse.