Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “Kathmandu”

Tips for Travelers – Do as I Say, Not as I Do

During this day’s transition from Kathmandu, Nepal to Chiang Mai, Thailand, DM and I broke every rule of the experienced traveler, including:

1.  Allow plenty of extra time to get to the airport in case of traffic.

“Our international flight is at 1:30PM;  let’s arrange for a taxi at 10:30” say I.

“Oh, that’s silly,” says DM. “It’s only a 20 minute ride to the airport – make it 11:AM.” I didn’t feel like arguing, and also refrained from saying “I told you so” when the taxi arrived 20 minutes late, and traffic was horrendous.

2.  Besure to check that you have all your belongings before leaving the hotel.

Three blocks into the noon-time traffic of Kathmandu, DM shrieks “Oh No! I left my purse on the couch in the hotel lobby – we have to go back.” Fortunately, the taxi driver knew a back street, and the purse was still there.  And even more fortunately, the plane was a bit late.

3.  Be sure to check the rules about currency exchange if you have any significant amount of local currency left.

I had about $70 US in Nepalese rupees, which I decided in our hurry not to pause to exchange at the airport in Nepal.  It was only when I got to the US and tried to exchange that I found out that it is “illegal” to take NPR out of Nepal, and no other country will exchange the currency.

4.  Be sure to check that you have all your belongings before leaving the plane.

I stepped aside to check  the connecting flight number as we waited to exit the plane;  only after we were halfway up the concourse (fortunately, still within the security area) did I realize my backpack was too light – I had left my fanny pack/purse on the airplane seat.   I swam upstream against the flood of exiting passengers to retrieve it, and we loped through the concourse to catch our flight rather than making our anticipated R&R stop in the Thai Airways Orchid Lounge.

5.  Be sure you have some local currency in hand on arriving in a new country.

We had planned to grab some Thai currency in the Bangkok airport, but had no time between flights due to flight delay and my brain-dead episode.  By the time we arrived in Chiang Mai, the ATMs and currency exchange booths were shut down for the night.  Fortunately, DM’s neighbor had given her a few leftover baht to use as mad money – just enough to pay the taxi to our hotel.

So yes, we knew better.  God watches over fools.  We got there anyway.

Kathmandu – Day 7 – the Kathmandu Domestic Air Terminal – and back

Kathmandu International Airport is modest, particularly in comparison with its glittering neighbor, Suvarnabhumi International Airport  in Bangkok.  It has a small traffic control tower, a simple customs process,  a short walk through the terminal to the taxi queue, a nicely landscaped divided entry highway which leads into town a reasonable distance away. It reminds me of the Oakland CA airport in the 60’s from which charter flights through to Europe through Iceland – competent and manageable.

So my arrival in Kathmandu through this gateway did not prepare me for my attempted departure through the Kathmandu DOMESTIC Airport, which was much more reminiscent  of  Oakland’s Greyhound bus terminal before anti-smoking ordinances were in effect, assuming that tule fogs had shut down all routes south and stranded five busloads of would-be travelers.

There is no such thing as curb-side check-in at the KDA – and if, like our group, you have several weeks worth of baggage, you would do well to tip your taxi driver or one of the unofficial airport porters to assist you to carry your bags.   You will need to pay an airport fee of about 200 Nepalese xxx and be able to show your receipt at the security gate.  You will be responsible yourself for getting your bags into the airport, labeled for your destination, and onto the conveyor belt at the security gate for X-raying. Then you will step through the security portal (Note that “Gents” go through a different portal than “Ladies”, in case you need to be patted down) and must then make sure your bags get into the proper pile to be loaded onto the airplane.

If there is fog, there will likely be several plane-loads of travellers waiting to embark.  Seating is limited and the benches appear also to have been handed down from a Central California bus terminal; their chrome armrests and cracked vinyl reek of authenticity, if not more.

If you are flying from Kathmandu to Pokhara-  the jumping off point for most treks on the Annapurna circuit – there are a few constraints.  The first and most important is that the Pokhara airport has no radar capability, so if the area is fogged in, it is not possible to land an airplane.  Also, it is not possible to land a plane after dark, as Pokhara electric service is limited.   Between October 15 and November 15 there is usually clear weather, so this is the peak season for trekking and for flying.  But if there is fog you will wait for it to lift – as we did.

Many of the waiting travellers will be smoking, as there is no such thing as smoking restriction in public areas in Nepal.  No, wait!  There IS a N0 Smoking sign in one area – and there are seats!  Uh oh!  it is the area next to the two public lavatories.  That’s why there are seats – the reek of the lavatories is perhaps less injurious to your health than the cigarette smoke, but it doesn’t make much difference, as there is nothing except the small sign preventing the smoke from the smoking section to invade the sacrosanct area.

There is a small snack bar offering candy, crackers, chips, soda, water, a limited selecton of souvenirs, and a very limited menu of hot sandwiches or rice bowls.  Since the flight to Pokhara will lasts less than an hour, you may forego these treats. Or if you find yourself waiting through lunchtime, as we did, you may give in.

I would like to be able to tell you about the boarding process, about the state of the Yeti Airlines plane we were to fly on, and about the Pokhara Airport, but unfortunately, you will have to learn about these from another, more fortunate traveler.  After SIX HOURS of waiting,  at 2:50 the nice young thing at the counter confided in DB ” We can’t fly after 4 PM because there are no lights at Pokhara, so the flight will be announced cancelled at 3.  Go quickly and get in line to re-book your flight and reclaim your luggage.”

So the three of us jumped into action – DB managed the baggage, I hit the Airport tax counter for a refund for the three of us, and DM stood in line to rebook.  DM also located the free phone and had a business card for our hotel, so we were able to secure our room again.

So now what?  We were  exhausted – 7 hours of airport noise and announcements and babble bracketed by unbelievable traffic and brown air, and no assurance that we would not have to go through it again the next day.  Stay tuned for Day 8!


Tip for travelers in Nepal – make sure to arm yourself with plenty of baksheesh  in the local currency before embarking – we needed an extra trip to the ATM after our experiences.

Nepal – in and around Kathmandu – Day 6

The holiday is over, and the people of Kathmandu have returned from their families and festivities to normal – and so has the pollution level in the city.   We steered through appalling traffic and dust and made our way outward and upward into the foothills.  The further away from the valley we got, the clearer the air, but the haze was still evident until we were well up the foothills.  It is hard to know how to fix this problem – like all cities in developing countries Kathmandu is a magnet for people looking for education, opportunity, excitement.

We headed for Dawainkali –  the temple dedicated to Kali, goddess of death and destruction.  “We are lucky you took a break day,” says Shaku, our guide.  “If we had come on Monday as planned, there would be little to see, but Tuesday is a day for sacrifices.”  We look at each other dubiously.

We arrive at the site, and walk up a cobbled street past blocks and blocks of people selling items for sacrifice, ranging from bouquets of roses and garlands of marigolds to chickens and baby goats. Not so many souvenir sellers – these stalls are for genuine Nepali worshippers, not just for tourist show.

At the site two long queues of people writhe around the shrine.  In addition, paths are set aside for non-Hindus and others excluded from the temple to observe the proceedings.  Shaku confided that she was very unhappy not to be able to participate, as she was  the wrong time of the month; women in menses cannot enter the temple.  However, she directs us to the best vantage point, and we are able to witness the decapitation of a goat as well as the axing of a number of chickens and coconuts.

Once the sacrifice is made, the blood is sprinkled on Kali’s image, and the devotee is free to reclaim the chicken, goat, or coconut.  Just outside the inner shrine is a shed where the animals are plucked, gutted, and dismembered for later barbequing.  The marble floor of the area was stippled with blood drippings and mud – the thought crosses my mind that if I slip and fall I will probably have to be air-lifted to Delhi for blood purification.
Next we climb up a steep hill of steps to a second, less blood-thirsty shrine overlooking the first, where the worship of Vishnu goes on inside  while at the same time at a corner of the plaza has been set up as  a small temporary Buddhist shrine , festooned with prayer flags, and a group of Buddhists are devoutly reciting scriptures under the tutelage of a white-garbed teacher.  A nice example of Nepali’s peaceful coexistence of religions. (Maybe it’s only the Muslims and Christians whose evangelical fervor makes trouble?)

On the way down we stop for tea and sai, a sort of Nepalese donut.  Since we eat with our guide, the entire set including a Coke came to 70NP (the going rate for a Coke alone in Thamel is 80NP). However, the Nepalese make no secret of their double standard in pricing;  all the museums and historic sites charge foreigners and tourists 3-5 times as much as ‘citizens of the SAARC” – which includes India, Cambodia, Thailand, Nepal, Bhutan, etc.  This seems fair for the historic sites, as the funds are used for maintenance and restoration, and even at restaurants the tourist rate is still very reasonable – we have not paid more than $6 / person for any dinner.

Next we visit a relatively new Buddhist stupa founded by Thai Airlines in memory of the crew members and passengers of a Thai Airways flight between Bangkok and Katmandu that crashed in 1992.  Golden buddhas, and a good view of smoggy Kathmandu below.

Our final stop is at a traditional Newari village, where  women in traditional costumes are threshing and winnowing rice using woven trays – tirelessly filling the trays and tossing the rice to the wind to allow the chaff to float away.  Where were the men?  Groups of them squat on street corners playing cards with dried beans for markers.  “It is a festival time for them,” explains Shaku – but evidently not for the women.

Back through the dust and pollution and traffic to our hotel – this time I use my neck scarf as a face mask and it was better.  We bid our escorts good by with generous tips (I am not the wife of an ex-tour guide for nothing.)

Our third friend has joined us, and we have been moved to the Holy Himalayan Hotel’s equivalent of a penthouse suite -two rooms, one with a king bed and bathroom with a tub, the other with twin beds, a balcony, and a small kitchen.   The cost is actually less per person.

For dinner we follow the recommendation of my sister’s colleague and hit  Fire and Ice Pizzeria.  Like other restaurants in Thamel it was founded by people who came to hike and stayed – the pizzas are as authentic as can be made with Nepalese ingredients, and the place is packed.

We sat at table with a charming young Belgian couple who had just completed much of the Annapurna circuit and had also gone to the Chitwan national wildlife park – another of the World heritage sites in Nepal where one can enjoy bathing with the elephants,  canoeing through the rain forest, spotting rhinos, and dodging crocodiles.  Maybe next time.

Note to travelers in Kathmandu:  If you want to get seated promptly at a restaurant, arrive at 6PM or shortly after – by 7PM the joint was jammed and jumping.

Second note to travellers in Kathmandu:  if you want to get your check in a hurry at a restaurant that is jammed and jumping, fugeddaboudit.

Third note: When you get the bill, be sure they return the credit card BEFORE you sign the chit.

Kathmandu – Advice for travellers

1. Bring a reliable alarm clock:  You will need this for the mornings when you are asked to get up at an incredibly early hour to view the sunrise on the Annapurnas.  The Annapurna Range is long and large, and the sun rises every morning, so you will have many opportunities to do this.

2. Bring granola bars:  For those mornings when you get up before the hotel breakfast service is operational in order to see the sunrise on the Annapurnas.

3. Pack warm layers: For those mornings when you get up early to see the sunrise on the Annapurnas and the temperature still hovering in 40s as you drive out to the place with the optimal view.  It will be in the 70s by lunchtime so be prepared to peel like an onion.

4. Be philosophical:  On those mornings when, like us on Day 5, you wake at 4AM, dress in warm clothes, eat your granola bar, drive on empty freeways and one-lane dirt roads to the acclaimed vantage point…and the fog is in.   I saw the sunrise pink the top of the fogbank, but not a sign of the Annapurnas.  Such is life.

5. Study up on the Hindu pantheon:  It helps a lot as you check off the seven World Heritage Sites in the Kathmandu Valley if you are up to speed with the various incarnations of Vishnu and his consort, together with their assorted supporters, favorite modes of transport (Ganesh, the elephant-headed god, rides a shrew) and associated holidays.

6. These are active worship sites; don’t be squeamish about local customs: One shrine, beautifully decorated with hand-painted tiles featuring peacocks, was splatttered with blood from a recent sacrifice;  another temple was adorned with unbelievable elaborate wood carvings, and strings of dried buffalo intestines.

7. Bring your camera’s battery charger with an international adapter :  an auxiliary battery will not do the trick.    My fellow travelers and I had almost 2000 pictures to share AFTER we had culled the worst shots.  (But if you forget, everything you need is available in Thamel – for a price.)

8.  No matter where you go, there you are:  On Day 5 at the Holy Himalyan Hotel I  struck up a conversation with the lady at the adjacent free-for-guests computer who had just returned from a trek of the Annapurna circuit.  After a few rounds of “Where are you from? … You’re kidding!” it turned out that she works for my sister.   Later, it happened that  the only other American couple at the guest house in Tadupani lived on the same street as my son in Sacramento, and the only other guests at the teahouse on the way to Ghorepani actually lived on my street 4 short blocks down.  Good thing I wasn’t mis-behaving!

Day 4 – Kathmandu by Foot

So much to see, so much to try to take in.  Just walking here is a challenge, as the streets are about 10 feet wide with no sidewalks –  so pedestrians compete for space with each other, sellers whose wares have spilled onto the street, fleets of honking motorbikes, taxis, and truck of all sizes.  Somehow everyone seems to get where they are going, no raised voices, no fender benders, and we have seen only one scooter wipeout with no injury.

Our tour took us back to the Durbar Square, where we retraced a number of steps which we had hurried through yesterday, and also spent a good amount of time in the musty, dusty Royal history Museum which used to be a royal palace.  It is hard to imagine royalty in these small, low-ceilinged rooms with dark wood timerbering and exposed brick.   We burned out on reign after reign of pictures of royal tours and certificates of honorary degrees.  So we found a rooftop restaurant at the Royal Park Guest House at which to have lunch and watch the passing parade four floors below – delicious, simple, and fun.  On the wall of the entry were framed newspaper articles about the owner’s daughter who had been the first Nepalese woman to summit Mt. Everest, and later did it again with her fiancé to get married at the top.

South of Durbar Square is  a succession of older neighborhoods with shrines every 20 yards, little hidden plazas and squares, cute children asking to have their photos taken, and mercifully less traffic.

An glimpse of international politics:  we had just been wondering what was done about garbage in these narrow, clutered streets and courtyards when we saw our first garbage truck – decked with the flag of China – a good will gift from Nepal’s resource-hungry next door neighbor. As we spent more time in Nepal, we noticed more and more of such “gifts” – schools, medical laboratories, museum sponsorships – from Korea, Germany, China, India.  There is a string attached – in return these countries seek permission to build hydro-electric power plants in Nepal’s pristine mountain areas – and route the electricity to factories outside of Nepal. 

Every neighborhood has its own shrine and stupa, tucked away in coutyards accessible through low archways or narrow alleys.  We saw all sorts of shops, ranging from the tourist knock-off centers (we snagged a reversible fleece branded “Patagonia” on one side and “North Face” on the other.) to stores that seemed to sell exclusively locks and keys, or exclusively thong sandals, or exclusively pots.  No supermarkets, no Wal-Marts – I wondered what the Nepalese would make of our emporiums.

For dinner we ranged out to the  Krua Thai restaurant in Thamel – another winner, on a rooftop overlooking the Thamel street circus but relatively quiet, and with excellent food. On a balmy night, with festival lights everywhere, a second-floor rooftop restaurant is easy to love.

Day Three – Kathmandu

Three major World Heritage Sites, all within a few kilometers of our hotel.  This happens because the Kathmandu Valley was formerly cut up into a number of little fiefdoms, each of which had its royal family, royal palace, and religious centers, so we get a bunch of World Heritage Sites all balled up in one touring package.

Other World Heritage Sites I have seen, – the Taj Mahal, the Forbitten City in Beijing, Chitchen Itza – seemed  ruled by a sense of order – the rigid geometrical symmetry of the Forbidden City and the Taj, the graceful balance of temple sites in Japan, all seemed to reach toward some ideal perfection.

Nothing remotely orderly about either of the public spaces we saw in Kathmandu and Patan – I felt as though I was seeing some sort of divine rummage sale – Hindu, Buddhist, Animist shrines all jumbled together in one space with no attempt to organize.  I was dazed by the clutter.

Patan Durbar Square:  Durbar means “palace” and indeed there is a palace on one side, now transformed into a museum.    The square is packed haphazardly with buildings and monuments and plinths, some topped with gilded statues, some ringed with stone lions, some of brick, some of white stone.  The whole effect is something like a garage sale of religions.   Shaku pointed out that the general architecture of some of the buildings echoed the pagoda idea of China, and she seemed to say that a great architect of Nepal went to China and influenced this style there.

Swayambunath -The “Monkey Temple” – The biggest stupa yet, perched on a hillside high above the valley, ringed by yet higher hills unfortunately obscured by valley smog on this warm day.

Kathmandu Durbar Square: yet another jumble, of stupas, temples, and shrines, plus a schizophrenic palace-now-museum with one huge wing in the old style of Kathmandu (red brick trimmed with heavily carved dark wood doorframes, window grilles, and balconies) and the other a glaring white Doric-columned wedding cake in the style of a very pompous British bank – grafted onto the old palace by a turn-of-the-century king who unfortunately visited the UK and came back with Modern Ideas.

In the evening, Shaku had arranged for us to attend an “authentic Nepalese” dinner/folk dance performance at the Kathmandu Kitchen.  She does well with restaurants.  The outside looked dubious, the bar above the street deserted, but on the third floor a banquet hall was set with tables of various sizes with room for about 80 people, and at one end a mural depicting Patan Durbar Square and a raised platform.  We got good seats at the side front along the wall;  by the end of the second course the room was nearly filled by two large tour groups (one German, one maybe Australian), a party of French people, and a few others whose languages we didn’t catch.

The performance was high-spirited and varied, four young people dancing in the mode of the Sherpa, the Tibetan, the Pathan, the Nepali – some seeming influenced by Mongolia, some by India.  The highlight was the Peacock Dance, in which a dancer arrived in a giant peacock costume, complete with bobbing head and a tail which rose and spread into an impressive fan at the conclusion of the dance.  The last “dance” was actually a comedy routine involving fire breathing – the one Nepali speaker in the room laughed a lot at the dialogue, but I think she was a girl friend of one of the performers. 

Dory and I ended the day triumphant – we were able to guide our taxi driver back to the hotel with no glitches.

Nepal – Day 2 PM – Culture-hopping

You know World Heritage sites – the Pyramids, the Great Wall, Chitchen Itza, Macchu Picchu, the Taj Mahal – but you may never have heard of Bhaktapur, Patan and Kathmandu’s Durbar Squares, the Buddhist stupas of Swayambu and Boudha, and the Hindu temples of Pashupati and Changu Narayan.  Tiny Nepal is the home of ten World Heritage sites, of which seven are in the valley of Kathmandu.

On our first afternoon we saw

Boudha – a huge stupa (Buddhist temple) surrounded by Buddhist schools and monasteries.  The stupa consists of a very large square structure with a staircase at the center of each side, decorated with prayerwheels in niches all around at elbow height.  This is very convenient for the pilgrims who orbit the stupa, always going clockwise, as they constantly reach out to keep the prayer wheels spinning as they walk. (Do you think they get Prayer-wheel elbow?)

On top of the square structure, which symbolizes the earth, is a very large white dome decorated with faded yellow paint in lotus petal designs – this symbolizes the air.  Atop the dome is another square structure painted gold, with two huge eyes looking out from each side – this symbolizes the all-seeing Buddha.  Atop the Buddha block are 13 more blocks, gradually diminishing in size – these are the 13 steps toward enlightenment.  And on top of these – a golden umbrella, symbolizing the cosmos.

And everywhere are flags, fluttering prayers into the breeze.

I compare this structure to the great Gothic cathedrals with their cross shape, and the huge symmetrical mosques of Istanbul carefully oriented toward Mecca – the attempt to embody the universe in a building takes my breath away.

Pashupatinath – this is a very holy Hindu site in Nepal, along one of the sacred rivers coming from Tibet.  We saw several cremations in progress in various stages, from the dipping of the body into the sacred river, to the preparation of the pyre, the covering of the body with straw, the burning, the sweeping up of the ashes afterward – all from a distance from the other side of the river.

The temple is a favorite destination spot for Sadhus, the holy pilgrims who smear themselves with ashes, leave their hair uncut, and wander in from India with only a cloth for decency, a trident, and a begging bowl – right out of Rudyard Kipling!

And for monkeys – we saw a few hanging about on the fences and steps, but suddenly at the ringing of the temple bell at 4:30 they came over the steps in a wave, screeching, scuffling, carrying babies clinging to stomach and backs of the mothers.  They all headed across the bridge nearest us, and within a few minutes the opposite side of the bank nearest the temple was scrambling with monkeys on every step and protuberance, where there had been none before.  Our guide swore that no monkey-feeding goes on – what could have happened in the monkey-mind to drive this impulse?


We ended the day at an Israeli-run vegetarian restaurant called, obscurely, OR2K.  Or2K is a fallback to the 60’s – no chairs, low tables, lots of cushions, black light causing white shirts, socks, and various decorations about the restaurant to glow fluorescently.  The food turned out to be both excellent and abundant.  It was rather restful to sit on the floor against the cushioned backrest, eat mostly with our hands, listen to music inspired by George Harrison, and try to figure out which of the young trekkers coming in and out were connected or likely to be.

From reminders of Rudyard Kipling to evocations of George Harrison in a few hours – I had the sense of being in a berserk time machine skipping from century to century and culture to culture. This would recur to me a lot during my time in Nepal.

Nepal – Day One

Annapurna Range from our plane window as we descend into Kathmandu

I’m sitting on the mezzanine balcony of the Holy Himalaya hotel where three Internet computers are located, listening to the cheerful interchanges in incomprehensibel Nepali coming up from the lobby below where the staff is cleaning up from last nights festival.  I t is about 6AM Nepalese time (which is about 13 hours and 45 minutes ahead of PDT –  the odd 15 minutes  is said to be the exact time at the summit of Gauri Shankar – one of Nepal’s sacred mountains.)

The Dewali festival seems to combine Christmas (lights everywhere) Easter (flowers everywhere – mostly marigolds in long chains but also orchids and asters and etc.) Halloween (the kids go from door to door with their singing and drumming and stay until someone buys their silence with a coin), Thanksgiving (everyone tries to reunite with famlly) plus some Nepalese  wrinkles (it goes on for several days;  on the third day is the lights and dancing, on the fourth day siblings mark each other with a red spot on the forehead and exchange gifts). Nothing too rowdy at our hotel, just a Nepali band, men dancing, firecrackers, kids beating drums and tambourines and singing in time.

Dewali decorations - Marigolds everywhere!

Dory and  I got into our hotel about two, having consumed four airline meals plus treats in two airline lounges over the 28-hour travel period  (counting layovers and delays) it took to get here.  So we were not starving, and decided to go out and cruise the town.  Our hotel is in Thamel, which is the heart of the trekkers and tourist section – lots of stores selling pashmina shawls and gold-plated jewelry as well as T-shirts and back-packing gear.Due to the holiday the streets were full of peope as well as cars, and we had to master the art of darting across busy streets with nary a stoplight in sight (we did spot one in the course of the walk but it was not working).  The busiest streets have pedestrian overcrossings a la Hong Kong, great for climbing up to get an idea of where we might be.We managed to walk past the National Museum (closed for the festival), along what seemed to a fairly posh street (sidewalks and The United Colors of Benetton), made a right turn and found ourselved in the Old Town, walking past the Queens Pond (lovely white pavilion in the center of the pond, big marble elephants and other beasts looking on from the shore.) and detouring here and there to look at towers and temples and other bits of architecture for which we as yet have not learned the names.Every business and home had drawn a mandala design using colored powders at the door, surrounding a small basin containing oil and a candle wick, in turn surrounded by marigolds and other flowers.  Many of these had been worn away by passing feet, so they seem not to be so sacred that you can’t step on them.  At one temple we saw a couple of men carrying what looked like giant brown flower tassels;  they turned out to be flute vendors;  the “tassels” were made up of clusters of brown polished bamboo flutes.  Lots of women in beautiful colorful saris and tunics, lots of men in drab western clothing – too bad for them!  But they got to dance later, and the women not, it seemed.

We never made it to the official center of the old town, the Durbar Square, as we began to feel weary and think about dinner.   We managed to relocate our hotel thanks to the business cards we had carefully picked up before we left – I was proud that I as chief navigator had gotten us to within a couple of blocks of the hotel (which is located on a side street) before we made our first inqury.

Dinner in Thamel offers every variety of cuisine to cater to the tourist taste.    The food at the outdoor restaurant down the street  was “fusion cuisine” a la Denny’s – you could have Pad Thai, Grilled Tofu with rice and steamed vegetables, or Beef Fajitas.  It was served fresh, hot, and salty, and cost about $3 for a full plate and tea.  We were not in the mood for adventure, and the location was lovely – we ate in the enclosed patio under an arcade, with  little oil lamps set all along the  arcade posts plus candles on the table and lights flickering around the door and staircase.

All well so far – this place reminds me a lot of rural Taiwan.

21st Century Time Travel

As a child I dreamed  of time travel, sparked by science fiction classics  from Mark Twain, H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov.  A few months ago, I actually did it.

Over a period of four weeks, I  bounced back and forth between the 21st century, the 1950’s, the 1930’s, and even further back to eras where the automobile and even the wheel had no part in daily life.  No mad scientist, no magic or mystery – just the reality of 21st century air travel co-existing with life in countries where “development” lags decades or centuries behind that of Silicon Valley.

From our spanking-new San Jose Air Terminal B, I flew first to LAX – and immediately found myself in the early 1960’s– Los Angelese International Airport with its trademark flying saucer and neon entry sculpture, offering air travelers an inter-terminal air shuttle by bus every 20 minutes or so.  The shuttle alternative – a concrete sidewalk.  As architecture, LAX is a curiosity;  as an entry to our country for almost  12 million people a year, it is a bit cringe-worthy.

Nine hours later, I debarked from my time machine, an Airbus A340, smack in the 21st century at the gleaming  Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok.  Despite flooding that threatened to devastate the capitol only 28 miles away, the Bangkok airport worked flawlessly, with gleaming LED displays pointing the way along moving sidewalks to the connecting flights.  We relaxed comfortably in the Orchid Lounge before boarding our next time machine.

Only three hours later we emerged in  the 1940’s – a small airport with rudimentary radar, roll-up steps to allow passengers to disembark, and a quick walk across the tarmac to retrieve baggage from the cart. Then out to a cacophony of competing taxi drivers begging for business – no organized taxi queue here, and then on into the maelstrom of foot, bicycle, pedicab, motorbike, bus, and auto traffic that is Kathmandu.

A few days later we had left all thought of wheels behind, as we trudged up the foothills of the Himalayas along with donkey caravans, goat herds, and small wiry men carrying incredible loads of rice, food, cookware, clothing and other items for sale or barter, as well as porters carrying baggage for tourists such as ourselves.

We saw grain being threshed by oxen driven over the harvested sheaves so that their hooves would loosen the grain in the stalks.  We saw women separating the grain from the stalks by tossing trays of harvested sheaves in the air over and over and letting the wind blow the chaff away little by little.  We stayed in guest houses where the water for bathing was heated over a charcoal stove and delivered in a kettle to the common bath room.  We were traveling as fast as our feet could carry us – about  6 miles a day max. We had been transported back to Biblical times.

But wait – in that guest house where the hot water for bathing had to be heated on the stove, the children of the house were watching Nepalese “Sesame Street” on a flat-screen TV in the corner of the dining room next to the charcoal-burning stove.  And that peddler carrying an entire Wal-Mart’s worth of kitchenware – isn’t he listening to music on his iPod as he strides along?  Us Sci-fi veterans know that if you introduce an anachronism from another time into the past, history will veer off into unforeseen directions.  What will the end of the 21st century look like for Nepal?

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