Busy Back in the States

I’ve been back in the states for a total of 14 days, and those two weeks have been immensely busy. With only 8 days at home, I set out to do the most American and most Pittsburghian (sp?) things possible and spend time with the people I care most about. In a word it was awesome. In two words, it was awesome and hectic.

Now I’m back on Harvard’s campus, after spending a draining 6 days preparing to lead an outdoor orientation program, and ready to leave again for the outdoors. We really haven’t had much time to ourselves this last week, but all the fun is about to start tomorrow.

So while I have not had time to sit down and write an epic last blog post, I certainly have been thinking about it and plan on doing just that in the few days I have back on campus before classes start. But I apologize for the delay.


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On The Move

Ok, I lied. I do have time to write up a post about my latest travels…but only because my flight was canceled yesterday morning. Bummer. But it wasn’t completely unexpected. I knew that at this time of the year, flights to Lukla, the only easily-accessed gateway to the Everest region, are routinely canceled. Lukla is a town literally perched amongst mountain peaks, and the runway is this tiny strip of pavement that they managed to squeeze in there. The runway is at something like a 12 degree incline and runs right off over a cliff. So, when visibility is poor, they choose not to risk an accident. Anyhow, I caught a flight this morning and I’ve already hit the trail. I wrote this post last night, but before I could post it, my internet cut out, so I’m spending some money on a short 10-minute internet session at one of the expensive internet cafes on the trail.

So, I left you last with stories of life on a farm in Chitwan. I left Chitwan for Lumbini, a town on the border of Nepal and the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha. I’ll be honest, the place left me underwhelmed and a little disappointed. Developers have taken the whole ‘birthplace of Buddha’ thing way out of hand. Lumbini has now become a disneyworld of sorts – there’s an intricately planned gated area with museums, a man-built circular lake, and huge, ornate monasteries representing Buddhist nations from all over the world. It comes off more as a meticulously planned attraction than an authentic travel experience.

I moved on from Lumbini to the border crossing at Sonauli and from Sonauli I slowly made my way to Varanasi, India. I left at 7 AM and arrived in Varanasi at 10 PM. The multiple buses, the heat, the lack of food and water made the experience, at times, hellish. But, honestly, I love those kinds of days. They challenge me to discover what I really need, they force me to bear the difficulties that others bear everyday, and they take me to far-flung places I’d otherwise never see.

When I finally arrived in Varanasi, I had little time to find my lodge, but it ended up taking quite some time. I had picked out the Yogi Lodge from reading about it online, but I didn’t have a guide book yet that could help me get there. See, I had originally planned on getting my India guidebook in Pokhara, in the time between my arrival by flight from Jomson and my bus to Chitwan. but because that flight had been late, I had no time to find one of the few English bookstores. Anyway, I had looked at maps online before coming, and I saw that they all marked an area called ‘chowk’ next to where the Yogi Lodge was. So I confidently strode up to some rickshaw drivers, and asked how much it’d be to take me to ‘chowk’. I saw some confused faces, but after repeating it a few times, I started getting some bids. I took the lowest and got dropped off about 10 minutes later. Except nobody here seemed to have ever heard of the Yogi Lodge. I finally found a guy who spoke great English and he said ‘chowk’ wasn’t an area. It means ‘intersection’ in Nepali. This much I knew, but I guess I had just assumed that there was an area of Varanasi named ‘intersection’ that everyone knew about. By now, I know I’m somewhere in Varanasi, but I don’t know where. I take out my compass and head East towards the river, fending off relentless shopkeepers and rickshaw drivers looking for my business. On the way, I keep asking people if they know of the Yogi Lodge, and finally I find someone who says, “yes! This way.” And he just starts walking, so I follow him. We walk through dark, narrow allyways, hop on a rickshaw, walk some more, and after 10 minutes pass, I start wondering where this guy is taking me. I’ve read all about the money-making schemes of aggressive Varanasi merchants, the seedy underbelly of the city, and the necessity for taking safety precautions, but right, now, I didn’t really have any options. Finally we head deep into these alleys and I know that I’ll either see Yogi Lodge in a couple minutes or get jumped by this guy’s friends. I ask some people I see on the street, “Is this the way to Yogi Lodge?”, and they tell me it is. Sure enough, my new friend takes me right up to the door of Ypgi Lodge, which is situated amongst the serpentine alleyways of the old city. I thank him, give him a little money (which he asked for quite assertively), and was quite happy to have finally reached my destination. I thought about what had just happened and felt extremely lucky but also extremely thankful. It was so nice that my first encounter in Varanasi, the city of hagglers, touts, and beggars, was one of (almost) genuine kindness.

The next day, I got to see the city up close. On my morning boat and evening boat rides, my visits to the temples, and my excursion to find an India guide book, I found a city that was truly mesmerizing. Varanasi is situated on the bank of the Ganges river. Only one side of the river is developed, creating a spectacular and somewhat strange setting. Varanasi is considered one of the holiest cities in the world. Hindus come to bathe in the holy waters of the Ganges and there are cremations all the time at the steps to the Ganges. My first boat ride in the morning, seeing dead bodies in the water, right next to people bathing under the shadows of these large, ancient spires, I was taken by the place. I spent the next few days getting to know the city better eating at these cheap street restaurants (50 Rs per meal; or 75 cents), joining a group of musicians at a temple, drinking chai tea with the old men hanging out on the sides of alleys, and watching the assortment of animals (dogs, goats, cows) make there way through the stone corridors. After three days of this, I departed on the train for Khajuraho.

Khajuraho is a World Heritage Site, home to a cluster of ornately carved temples. These temples get a lot of attention for the content on these carvings – they depict Kama Sutra positions. I spent a day walking around to all the temples, gazing at the sex acts depicted in stone. Of all the temples and forts and castles I’ve ever been to, these were perhaps the best preserved. After taking a slew of pictures…I I found that there wasn’t that much else to do. I ended up eating dinner at a local restaurant and meeting quite and interesting new friend. I never learned his name, but I doubt I’ll soon forget him. He was a local, about my age, who worked at the restaurant and after being served my meal, he asked if he could sit next to me and talk. After a half hour, he had told me about his family and the lessons his father taught him. Do good to others and you’ll find it returned to you, his father taught him. He was a string beleiver in Karma. He worked at this restaurant but (apparently) got no pay. He just used it as a means to meet travelers whom he could then help and make a commision of any services they consequently bought. He spoke 12 languages! (And he spoke them for me…it wasn’t a lie.) He learned them in free lessons from a local teacher. But the one thing that he talked about most was his disappointment in India. He complained about the rampant nepotism, cronyism, and bribery. He told me that if you were educated and skilled, but had no money, you would lose in a competition for a job with an unskilled, untalented rich man who could simply buy the position. His resentment was palpable. He disdained the government and thought it more of a joke than an effective organization. The conversation left its mark on me. Here I was, 5 days into my trip in India, and most people I had met, I could tell, constantly had ulterior motives. They always wanted something from me. Come look at my jewelry shop. Come buy your train ticket from me. Let me be your guide. But by the tone in his voice, I could easily tell that this kid was sincere. And his pain was real. His dreams were real, His lack of opportunity was real. We pated ways later that evening, and sure enough, he asked for no money, he asked for no favors, he just shook my hand, and with an earnest smile, bid me farewell. The next day I left for Orccha.

As I slowly made my way to Delhi, not much else happened that was noteworthy. I walked around, saw more temples, more forts, but these were less extravagant than the ones I had just seen, and after a week of just spectating, I had grown tired of the act. From Orccha, I made my way to Gwalior which is the pretty big city. I was a bit of a shock to the system. I hadn’t been to a big city in quite some time. I found the regional mall, complete with its own McDonald’s and movie theater, and felt both at-home and and a little bewildered. On my first night there, I visited the traveling circus that had stopped in Gwalior, determined to see the big Gwalior fort the next day. Having never been to a circus, I was quite amused and found teh whole thing ridiculous/awesome. However, the next day, I was not so amused. I woke up to an aching stomach and a massive headache. I had gotten lucky with my health for too. long. Nobody comes to this part of the world for this long and makes it out completely fine. I attribute my change of fortune to some mistakes of my own. Without thinking about it, I drank a fountain drink with untreated ice the previous day and had finally given in the desire for ice cream – two known ways of getting sick. Anyway, I stayed in bed all day, not eating, feeling terrible. At 6, I wasn’t feeling any better, but because I’m stubborn, I was determined to see the Gwalior fort. That was why I had come, I had to see it! I got there at 7 and the fort had already closed. I did however, meet some really nice Indian students (who also had plenty of bad things to say about India) who showed me around before I made my way into a cab and back to the hotel.

Delhi was up next, and I had a train to catch at 3 AM. I woke up at 1:30, feeling terrible, but somehow managed to pack my bag, pay my bill, and hop in a cab. I was highly motivated because I could look forward to seeing my family in Delhi. With two of their kids in Asia this summer, my parents decided that us four should meet up at a common destination, and Delhi was the easiest portal. I got over my sickness just in time and we spent the next couple days telling stories, sharing ideas, and reacquainting ourselves with one another. It was such a refreshing break from the lonely traveler routine. We spent one day in Agra seeing the Taj Mahal, which is just as beautiful as it is in the pistures, and after another train ride back to Delhi, we all headed our separate ways. I went back to Kathmandu, my sister returned to Singapore, and my parents continued their holiday in Dharamsala. I left India feeling refreshed and ready for my last challenge – trekking to Everest Base Camp. I consider these last 3 weeks a victory lap. I have achieved everything I originally set out to do – I had my five core experiences – and now I get to reflect on it all in the midst of the fantastic Himalyan mountains. Wish me luck.

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A Long Interlude

Hi everyone. I survived India and I’ve returned to Nepal ready to take on Everest (base camp)! So much has happened in the last week and a half, I don’t know what to write about. In fact, I think I’m going to have to wait to write about it. I have another flight tomorrow morning and I have to wake up at 5 AM. Since I spent the last 2 hours scouring the just-recently-posted Harvard course catalog, I’ve already spent up all the online time I can afford tonight. (I couldn’t help myself!) So, I apologize; I will have to fill you in on India once I return home, which will be on August 6. Between now and then, I will spend all my time trekking, out of internet contact. Wish me luck!

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Farm in Chitwan

* I was all ready to post this update two days ago, but my computar at the internet cafe crashed, losing most of my work.

In my fellowship applications for this trip, I wrote about my desire to immerse myself in a completely different way of life. On the world tour that I did last summer with the Krokodiloes, we really didn’t get the opportubity to explore life outside of big international cities, and the people who hosted us were largely successful professionals. While these people spoke different languages, they operated within a cultural framework not very unlike my own. After that experience, I wanted to have a truly foreign experience – that is, to get to know a culture that differred in siginificant ways from my own . That’s just the kind of experience I had this past week.

For the past 7 days, I’ve stayed on the Bhatterai family farm in the Chitwan region of Nepal. The family of 6 – 2 parents, 3 children, 1 grandmother – lives in a simple clay house and tends to only four fields. They also have a fairly nice two room guest house with computer that was donated to them by a past visitor. The facilities on the farm are pretty basic. All water is drawn from a well, the “shower room” is a spot of dirt in the garden, and the electricity unpredictably cuts in and out.

I spent my week on the farm alongside another student, from France, named Gilles. Upon my arrival at the farm,
Gilles warned me that “this place could get pretty boring.” And I can see why he thought that. The Bhatterai’s enjoy a very relaxed way of life. They spend a few hours working in the field or doing other menial tasks and the rest of their time completely open. These large swaths of free time were spent by enjoying meals together (only two a day, by the way), perhaps visiting the neighbors to chat, but mostly just sitting around.

I kept thinking back on Gilles’ comment that this place cuold get boring. What did it say about us that we might sometimes find this place “boring”. The Bhatterai’s live simple lives and they don’t expect too much, but they carry themselves with great joy and what I sensed was a genuine love of life. And in this attitude I think I discovered something I could learn from. So I spent the week trying to consiously shift the way I interpretted my own free time – instead of burdens in which I had to figure out how to spend my time, they became opportunities to experience the moment.

But I didn’t always succeeed in that task, and I definitely felt the need for greater stimulation. This got me thinking. I thought about how we in develped nations are conditioned by the various forms of entertainment and distractions that we readily wield at the slightest twinge of boredom. I found myself thinking about how the media affects the way we process information and interpret our own state of well-being. I also started to notice the ways in which the limited exposure to Western media has affected the lives of the Nepalis around me. I was amazed by the incredibly high self-consciousness, like in moments when kids would say, “Yes, America! That’s a developed country. Not like nepal. Nepal is poor.” There’s a great level of awareness of where Nepal stacks up in the global socioeconomic order. It’s an awareness that was absent until not very long ago, but as the Nepali youth watch more and more hollywood films, the social structures in Nepal can’t help but change.. I guess I never realized just powerful America’s biggest export – entertainment – was. We had a number of conversations with Balram, the father of the Bhatterai family, about his concerns about his son Pradeep. He would tell us how Pradeep just isn’t interested in continuing the family farm. His big aspiration right now is to get out of Nepal, to travel to either Europe or America. I don’t want to come across as the conservative bemoaning the loss of family values as a result of media. (Because that’s certainly not me.) In fact, I think greater access the media makes these people more world-conscious, more aware of life’s possibilities. This, in my opinion, can’t be a bad thing. But it comes at a cost.

So that was one idea that kept me busy this week. Despite what I described as the laid-back, simple lifestyle on the farm, I tried my best to fill my week with as many cultural experiences as possible. The week started off with Gilles and me working in the field, harvesting corn by hand, swimming in the Rapti River besides fishermen, and exploring the area on walks. On the way back from a swim in the river on my first day there, I spotted a kids’ volleyball game, and I insisted to Gilles that we join in. As soon as we stopped our bicycles, the kids ran up to us, exhausting all the English phrases they knew (Hello! How are you? Where are you going? what is your name? Where arer you from? how old are you? How many family members do you have?) After the initial frenzy, we started to play and I had a blast. It’s long been a dream of mine to walk into a some kids’ pick-up game in an international locale. After a short match, we headed back. I think that was one of my favorite moments in Nepal so far.

The next few days brought little work (we mostly were just clearing the corn of their husks) and so I spent most of the days just reading. I was able to finish the biography of Wittgenstein that I’ve been slowly working through, I finally had time to read my father’s memoir, I read through a copy of Barack Obama’s Dreams from my Father that was left here on the farm, and I started a short book introducing the philosophy of Frege.

On the second to last day, after a morning spent in the fields harvesting more corn, we had the opportunity to visit a local school, the Motherland English Boarding School. Gilles and I just stolled into the school hoping to observe some classes. This must be a not too uncommon event, for they knew exactly what to do with us. We spent the first period in an English class where, after the teacher had ME grade the student’s in-class work, we proceeded to introduce ourselves talk about our backgorund, and offfer some insights into life in America and France. After a round of questions and a couple of songs (they found out that I sang),it was off to thenext class. This pattern continued, as we hopped from class to class talking about and I talked about growing up in America (sans singing this time). It was a great way to spend a couple hours, but I left feeling a little dissapointed that we had basically just talked at these kids without hearing much about life in Nepal or observing many lessons.

After a elephant ride in the Chitwan National park (which brought a few wild rhino sightings) on our final day, we left the farm Wednesday morning. Since then I have spent most of my waking hours on buses, but now I am in India and as happy as can be. I’ll post another update around July 11.

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The Annapurna Circuit

Trekking was an incredibly rich, diverse experience. I started off sweating in the jungle and finished bundled up amongst snow-capped peaks. I trekked half the Annapurna circuit, doing the uphill cimbing section, cresting throung la pass, and then catching a flight from Jomson to Pokhara on the other side. Rather than giving you a day by day report of my goings-on, I think a portrait of some special moments on the trail would better reflect the experience:

– On the bus to the trailhead, I drew the attention of three young men about my age who then subjected me to a game of 20 questions. They followed up by trying to set me up with a girl on the bus, and after that failed, they invited me back to their place to have drinks with them. I had half a mind to go (I mean, how often do you get to lounge around with locals in rural Nepal), but I thought it better to stick to my plans.
– When stopping for a moment to catch my breath after passing through a rural village, this little boy walks up to me and starts asking for sweets (a common request), of which I had none. But I took his photo, which he was quite interested in, and then, upon seeing my camelbak tube, latched on to it and held on for dear life. It was just water, but he loved it. I don’t know if it was the novel method of delivery or if he was really thirsty, but he didn’t want to let go.
– Walking across upwards of 20 suspension bridges, which seemed top be taken out of an Indiana Jones film.
– Watching a world cup match on satellite TV, in the middle of nowhere with people from around the globe.
– In Manang, on the rest day, hiking 500 meters up to visit Praken Gompa, where I met a llama who performed a ritual and gave me a necklace …in return for an expected 100 rupee “donation”
– Cresting Thorung La Pass. At 5400 meters, it’s probably the highest point of elevation I will ever be in my life.
– Passing a herd of 200 yaks on the trail.
– Splurging on my last night and ordering the $7 “Xanadu Special” yak steak.

That should give you a peak into the kinds of experiences I had on the trail. The first 3 days were by far the most difficult for me. Because I wanted to squeeze trekking into my schedule now, while there was good whether, I gave myself 8 days to do a trek which normally takes 11 days. So I did 5 days worth of hiking in the first 3 days. I would wake up at 7am, hit the trail at 8am, and reach my destination by 5pm. By around 3pm I was always exhausted, ready to give up, but I always forced myself to go on. In the middle of the third day, things were made easier when I met 2 affable British kids, Zoe and Ben, who are about my age, and the middle-aged Italian man, Antonio, with whom they were travelling. Little did I know, I would be spending a lot more time with them. I met them just as I reached the top of one of the hardest climbs of the trip, we got to know each other over lunch and eventually started hiking together. I must say, I thought we made a really great team and I greatly enjoyed their company. Anyhow, after spending our rest day in Manang together, we split up. Antonio and I were headed to Thorung La pass, while Ben and Zoe were staying around the Manag area. Antonio and I remained together until the end of the trek in Jomsom. Antonio, who is a plant chemist and univeristy professor, and I got along quite well.

The expereince trekking alone vs. trekking in a group was certainly different. When travelling in a group, it’s not quite the same expereince as when you’re alone – you process your surroundings differently, you ferel more safe, comfortable, less exposed, but I can’t say I didn’t enjoy that after those first three hard days.

Another thing I noticed was how my state of mind was affected by the daily ritual of trekking. I found my mind “turn off”. I’m normally lost in thought, mostly about particular ideas I have been considering or things I have been reading about. But while trekking, all I can think about is the path in front of me, the pain in my leg, the next meal, etc. I think it did me some good to take a vacation from my thinking, but, honestl;y, I missed the philosophical musings that normally infatuate me.

Now, I am at a farm in the Chitwan region of Nepal, getting another rural experience, and I’ll have plenty to report back on in 10 days rtime. Until then, Namaste.

*I finally have some pictures up. My connection at the moment is dial-up and tranferring filres online takes forever, so I just put a few up on Picasa. Check out the link in the photos tab at the top of the page.


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Vipassana Meditation

I just arrived back from 10 days of meditation by Begnas lake, a 20 minute drive from Pokhara. I can’t exactly levitate yet, but I learned a lot in those 10 days.

Let me first explain the program. For 10 full days, we starting meditating at 4:30 AM, spent 10.5 hours meditating, with a few breaks, 2.5 meals, a video taped lecture at 7, and then bedtime at 9 PM. This all happened in complete silence, with no talking amongst students. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The first three days were by far the hardest. At first I had deep misgivings about the practice I was engaging in. The meditation itself wasn’t difficult – we were just instructed to focus on the breathing at the base of our nostrils. However, doing this for 10 hours a day quickly borders on torture and we were told that under no circumstances were we to try any other meditation techniques. In general what bothered me more than anything was the tone of the course. Immediately, we were lectured on what we couldn’t do during these 10 days with the promise that we would most certainly find peace and happiness as a result. The 1 hour lectures each day, too, were off-putting to me. S.N. Goenka, the teacher who we watched on video, said many things that I agreed with and many of the things that drew me to Buddhism, but they were often said in a righteous and condescending way. He preached non-sectarianism and tolerance (one of the reasons I wanted to take the course – many of these meditation retreats are nothing more than attempts to convince you top follow a very particular tradition) but in what struck me as an intolerant way. Having read a lot of Thich Naht Hanh, an author who radiates peace and nonjudgement in a very light and inviting way, this was difficult for me. Anyhow, I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the first three days were rough.

But then, on the fourth day, things started to turn around. We finally learned Vipassana meditation, a technique that focuses on sensation in the body, and I found it really helpful, My days sitting in agony, unable to control my wandering mind were largely over. Once you get into it, you find yourself sitting there for an hour with intense tingling sensations all over your body. It’s a truly strange and other-worldly
experience. In my own meditation practice back home, I had been trying to do similar things – encouraging a swell of sensation throughout the body – but now I had the technique mastered. I continued to find the lectures irritating at times, especially regarding the dubious metaphysical interpretations of these sensations, but the course was quite a positive experience from then on. I would slip in and out of determined meditation, but so did everyone else, as I learned later. It’s not expected that you enter an elevated state of consciousness immediately and continuously, but the brief moments when you reach that stage – maybe 2 or 3 times each day – are pretty awesome.

The course also allowed me to think a lot about my relationship with Buddhism. As I mentioned above, I often find myself deeply opposed to some of the metaphysical claims of particular traditions, but I’ve always held these views as secondary claims. The real message of Buddhism is that we each have an immensely powerful mind, a mind that when left untrained can bring us into great misery and self-inflicted pain. The solution is to develop the right habits for skillful living and thinking and objectively observe your emotions. When the teachings focused on these themes, I felt like I was learning something. I’m not totally on board with all Buddhist philosophy – I think it is bad rid oneself of ALL judgements…I think this leads to anhedonia, numbness, and nihilism – but these 10 days clarified for me why I practice meditation and what I need to focus on in the future. I really feel, more so than at any other moment in my life, that I have a firm grasp on how I want to lead my life when it comes to “spiritual” matters. The biggest thing I kept thinking about was how living a good life is an art, a skill, a craft, that must be developed through practice, like anything else. Personally, I LOVE studying the science of living a good life, but it is also very important to marry that with the art of living a good life.

Okay…I’d love to write more, but I really ought to leave now. My schedule has changed (see my updated itinerary in the ABOUT section) and I leave for Besisahar, the Annapurna Circuit trailhead very soon. I will be trekking for 8 days and then I will hopefully have internet access again. So expect another another update then.


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I arrived in the beautiful lakeside town of Pokhara 3 days ago, on Sunday afternoon. This was after a somewhat long and uncomfortable bus from Kathmanu. My hosts helped me find my way onto a minibus (which is basically just a big van) and I had to wait until the bus was full until we could leave…and that took about 2.5 hours, which was annoying. Anyway,after arriving at the bus park at 7:30 AM, I finally arrived in Pokhara around 3 PM. I spent the first night finding a room, buying some basic supplies, checking the internet, and just getting a vibe for the place.

On Sunday morning I got to explore the whole town by foot as I ventured to the Nepal Tourist Center to pick up my trekking permits. You quickly realize how isolated the tourist area of Pokhara is. Once you walk about 10 minutes, the town is completely different. At Lakeside, where I was staying, everything is super clean and everything is in English.

After my first afternoon paragliding flight was cancelled due to whether, I ended up renting a mountain bike and heading to the Bat Cave. The Bat Cave was great, but I probably enjoyed the bike ride even more. I was such a great experience riding through the streets on my own, encountering yaks, almost getting run over by buses, and seeing the outskirts of Pokhara where there are basically no tourists. I also enjoyed the few hours of strenuous physical activity, as I haven’t really worked out since getting here. At the cave itself, I payed th 15 rupee entrance fee and got a guide to show me around. There really were a bunch of bats! The cave was pretty small, and after crawling my way through the small exit passage, I finished the 20-minute tour.

Afterwards, as I was leaving my guide tells me, in a hushed voice, that I needed to pay my 500 rupee (about $7) guide fee, a fee which my Rough Guide to Nepal didn’t mention. I was suspicious, so I went to the check-in counter, and asked what this fee was about. There they seemed suspiscious too, generally agreeing that there was this fee, but unable to tell me how much it was supposed to be. Eventually they said it was ‘maybe around 500 rupees’. At that point I just wanted to hand over the money and go one my way, which I did.

I mention this story because scenes like this are becoming a trend on my trip. Frankly, I don’t mind giving a little extra money to these people who clearly need it, but the problem is that I keep giving a few extra dollars here and there everywhere I go – and I’m starting to notice the difference in my pocket book. In hindsight, I realized that I overpaid for my hotel as well as my paragliding trip. I am TERRIBLE at bargaining and I have a hard time saying no.

That evening I had dinner at the Punjabi Indian restaurant for a second night after having gotten to know one of the servers, Dev, the night before. We again were able to chat throughout my meal and this time he invited me to have breakfast with him the next day. I really happy to have made a new friend, especially a real local, and I jumped at the offer.

So on Monday morning I met him at a cafe, where he shared with me his life story. From what I could pick up (because I couldn’t always make out his English) His mother left him when he was young and his father was never around. So from about the age of 10 he’s had to largely take care of himself, with a little help of his older brothers. He grew up in Southern India with 4 brothers (3 older, 1 younger) and 2 sisters, and at about the age of 17, he decided to hop on a long 3 day train to Nepal. He found his way to Pokhara where he now works 13-hour shifts every day at the Punjabi restaurant for about 50 dollars per month. He tried to both work and go to school for some time, but he couldn’t maintain it. He would like to start his own business some day, but he just doesn’t have the resources for it.

While he told his story, I could tell that this was a really sincere and intelligent person. He wasn’t complaining, but he did want to tell his story. There was a look of understanding and acceptance in his eyes.

Establishing this kind of tourist-local relationship is always tricky. I wanted to communicate with him and learn from him while maintaining a peer relationship. But, as a I have a lot of resources and money behind me, it’s difficult to maintain that peer relationship. Eventually he talked about wanting to take me around the lake and up to the World Peace Pagoda the next day, and then he even mentioned how he wanted me to come back soon and take him to India with me. These were all niceĀ gesturesĀ and offered in the kindest way, but I could feel how I was becoming less of a friend and more of a resource. I really didn’t know what to do. I thought that travelling the lake with him would be nice, but once he started talking about all the other things, about how I might help him in going back to India and all this other stuff, I worried that I might not feel comfortable any more.

I left breakfast with a vague promise to visit the Punjabi restaurant sometime later that night to set up our plans for the next day. I never returned. I couldn’t bring myself to further enmesh myself in a relationship that might get really difficult. That, and my day was completely consumed witha whole other set of events…

I arrived at the paragliding center at 9 AM for my flight, and I quickly started chatting with the other tourists who were going to be on the same trip. I met this really lively, funny, mildly innapropriate Italian guy, a cool and suave male accountant from Paris, and a really earnest female student from the Netherlands. We all hopped in a Jeep to head up to the mountain from which we were to jump. The normal chit chat ensued and I really enjoyed my first opportunity to get to know other travellers.

So we arrived at Sarangot, the town at the the top of a nearby mountain, waited for the right conditions, and lept off. I ended up being paired with the owner ofthe paragliding company, the man who started Sunrise Paragliding, the first Nepalese paragliding company, and the First native Nepali to learn paraglding. He was fantatstic. I had signed up to do a aerobatic trip, full of twists and turns and trick, but as there wasn’t enough wind, I had to settle for a nice relaxing overhead tour of the Pokhara valley. I got to see terrace farms from 100 ft. up, wave to kids on the grouns, and see all the amazing scenery of the Pokhara valley from hundreds of feet in the air.

I was interested to see how I would like the trip. Something that I think about and worry about way too much is my generally flat emotional affect. In general, I just don’t get upset about things that most people get upset about, but I also don’t get excited by the things other people feel exhilarated by. On our jeep ride up the mountain, everyone was talking about how scared/excited they were. I felt completely calm. At take off, I just did as I was told and thought nothing much of it. In the air, I thought, ‘Oh, that looks pretty cool,’ but I can’t say I really ever felt ‘special,’, or entered another kind of excited state. So, all in all, I’m glad I did it, if just for the views. But I was reminded by how easily I shrug off things. I don’t know if that’s good or bad.

Afterwards, the other three travellers and I exchanged thoughts about the flight and then decided to go get lunch together. We ended up meeting another person on the street, a girl from Israel who was friend with the Dutch girl, and we all headed to lunch at this really interesting lounge called Sweet Dreams. There, we had great conversation, learning all about each other, exchanging travelling tips, playing some guitar together, and just hanging out. It was the quintessential backpacker moment. Afterwards, the Italian guy and the French guy had to leave, but the Dutch girl, Liz, and the Israeli, Mika, headed to a nearby cafe. There, we ended up discussing all sorts of things that were, if I may say so, more meaningful than the normal surface level conversations. By now it was about 4 PM, so I went back to my lodge, but we had all agreed to meet up again later that night. That night, everyone brought friends and new people they met and by the end of the night, we were a group of 10 – 2 American, 2 French, 2 Dutch, 1 British, 1 Australian, 1 German, 1 Israeli – a bona fide international diplomatic envoy. I particularly enjoyed talking to the other American and the German, both men in their late twenties who had just returned from the Annapurna Circuit. They told some amazing stories and gave me fantastic advice.

I relished this opportunity hear from so many people from a diverse array of countries. But I started to wonder about how diverse this group actually was. We all came from upper middle class backgrounds in Western nations and, because we all decided to do this kind of travel, most of us were of the liberal-hippy variety, or at least had sympathies with that world view. I can’t say I felt perfectly at home. I might have to write a dedicated post about this, but I’ll leave it at that for now.

One related issue that was talked about were the kinds of relationships you make while travelling. You meet incredible people and just getting to know their stories is amazing. However, the kinds of relationships you develop are limited in important ways. These people are single-serving friends with an expiration date. Some people after travelling for a year or more come back home and are foreigners in their own country. They’ve traded long term relationships at home for a string of temporary relationships abroad. A few months away doesn’t make a huge difference, but one guy I met has been travelling for two years. The friends he had back home will have changed so much and developed other relationships, that they might not really be the same friends any more.

Anyway, enough editorializing for now. After ending the evening with the always-fun political and religious discussions, I headed back home after a long evening.

This morning, I was supposed to go hiking up to the world peace pagoda with Mika, but I ended up waking up too late and instead had to spend the morning packing, making travel arrangements, checking out, writing this blog, etc. We did, however, meet up for breakfast together and we met this British man with huge beard and turban that had been ‘travelling’ for many years. He had to be about sixty and he said that he had been travelling over half his life. He told some great stories and it was certainly enlightening to hear about his perspective on travelling and on life. But he was the absolute perfect example of someone who had never established any permanent relationships with people.

…Okay…I really need to stop writing and catch a cab to Begnas Lake. I think that covers everything I wanted to talk about. I’ll report back again on July 12.

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