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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Travelling #5: Leaving for Nepal

I've got my backpack on full of hiking gear, a long sleeve layer on against the chill of the airplane aircon and my Tibetan cowboy hat, all foreign items to my daily life: my gear has sat unpacked under my bed, I haven't worn long-sleeves against the cold since I arrive in India. So I feel a bit odd with it all. But good weird, because it means I'm moving.

Goodbye sticky Chennai. Nepal here I come!

People seem to really like my cowboy hat. Both security check personnel in Chennai and my connection in Delhi specifically ask me about it and where I got it, saying they like it. A fellow traveller strikes up a conversation from it as it apparently looks like it is from Australia. Funny! I should wear it more often except it is far too hot to wear in south India.

It is super early. I was up at 4am and hadn't slept well, but the Chennai airport is quite small and pretty painless to get through. I nap on the plane.

Killing my stop-over in Delhi over lunch, my last meal in India is Subway. I feel a little about it, like such a lazy foreigner, but after 5 months nearly completely healthy, I actually came down with a stomach bug of some sort on the weekend and am feeling pretty tender, my appetite is gone and strong tasting food makes me feel somewhat ill. So simple, comforting food is the order of the day unfortunately. It doesn't really matter of course as I'm not exactly picky, I barely eat 1 western-style meal a month, if that and of course airport food of any nationality will be universally poor and unauthentic (although the dim sum at the Hong Kong airport restaurant was surprisingly excellent). And of course, I'm coming back, so it isn't a last meal really.

But it funny what little guilts strike you. You can feel not Christian enough, not Jewish or Hindu enough, you can feel not Indian or not Canadian enough, not patriotic, loyal or pious enough. For some reason, sometimes I worry about not being integrated enough, giving enough, hard core enough. Plight of the development worker I suppose. Most of us will fall prey to guilt over meeting some imagined or real standard or other I suppose in our work, personal and community lives. So there you go, eating Subway in India, even once in a blue moon is mine. Of course it also stems from a deep pleasure in eating diverse and interesting, rich foods such that I am disappointed when I miss an opportunity.

The exception to my non-Western food rule though is bakery. Travelling to Pondicherry with my mom and sister I rediscovered the joys of good croissants and buns filled with yummy stuff and really good breads. There are several in Chennai too so I think I will have to add a bakery run to my weekly schedule. No guilt for tasty things.

The food thoughts, stomach tenderness and exploration continues through my first few days in Kathmandu. I eat Nepalese momos on rooftop patios. Most the restaurants serve the eclectic mix familiar to backpackers the world over - global favorites of pizza, European soups, Chinese noodles, "sizzlers", pepper steaks, chicken cordon bleu, the Indian standards of butter chicken, tikka and tandoori. You can get muesli for breakfast nearly anywhere in the world despite no one I've ever met eating it at home. They have some good bakery here too. I'm totally on a bakery kick. I drink a lot of Nepalese (milk, masala) chai and banana lassis.

The tourist district of Thamel in Kathmandu has a strong familiarity to it: its twisting maze of streets cramped with signs and advertising stretching up 3 stories, the wall-to-wall traveler-oriented shops, the global "fusion" cuisine restaurants, competing music every dozen feet and of course all the kitch. It suggests a half-dozen other major backpacker meccas worldwide where travelers linger, socialize and put down temporary roots rather than just pass through. And as such has evolved that peculiar, foreign-yet-familiar mix of shops and services: craft and curios stalls and shops that spill out onto every street, clothing shops that are not representative of any original culture, but more the global "backpacker chic" and hawkers and touts trying to strike up conversations with "just look Sir". Restaurants that cater to global cuisine and always seem to sell muesli, sit shoulder with nightclubs, moneychangers, CD shops and Internet cafes. Bicycle rickshaws and taxis slowly weave the narrow, clogged streets hoping for custom (it is actually much faster to walk given the crowds). With a few differences, it could be Khao San Rd in Bangkok or much of Goa to name just two other stops. But its familiarity and pace is comforting and enjoyable right now as I too linger on my way through.

What have I been doing? Not much actually: wandering the narrow streets, dodging the bike rickshaws, soaking in the atmosphere, reading on rooftops, drinking lots of Nepalese chai. I've spend a morning standing in line at the Indian Consulate - getting a visa requires 2 all-morning waits, one to drop off the telex, another to pick it up and submit the visa, then a shorter, 3rd visit that afternoon to pick it up. I go back tomorrow. At least I'll know most of the line to chat with, half the line from Tues meeting back again to collect. I've spend a couple afternoons getting plans laid for my trek and mountaineering excursion. I haven't been inspired really visit the sites of Kathmandu. I should, but have been really enjoying the slow pace and a chance to consider "ambitious" plans to be buying route maps and browsing for trinkets to bring back to my housemates in between a long lunch and lazy dinner.

Erica and me overlooking Nam-TsoFunny enough, my cowboy hat is going over well here too. Here is a pic from when I was in Tibet. I just spent 15 minutes chatting with an Indian expat shop-owner on the street about what we each are doing here after he asked to try on my hat to see how it looked with his jeans and boots (good look actually, I recommended he request a hat from any guide friends heading to Lhasa). It gives the hawkers one more way to get me to stop and talk to them (about their wares), but I'm happier being distinctive and enjoying random conversations at the cost of a little more bother.

So welcome to Kathmandu, if you spot me in my cowboy hat on the patio, join me for a beer or a chai...

Where am I?

Alright folks, sorry for the delay in postings, but I've put my project into holding mode and have packed off for a week visit from my family, showing them around the Chennai area, and then for a month vacation in Nepal to renew my visa.

So greetings from Kathmandu!

I've escaped the building sticky Chennaiyan heat and have leaped to cooler climes and higher altitude. I suspect though that stilling on my ass in thick, sea-level Chennai won't help my trekking here, but under the principle of what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, I hold dimly to the prospect that dealing with the traffic pollution has increased my lung capacity. ;-)

I promise to post some more stuff about my adventures here as I can and will eventually post a whole pile of pics on my flickr account of impossibly high mountains.

Cheers and have a good April!