Friday, July 29, 2011

End of July (already!)

At the end of our Elk Lake weekend

We, unfortunately, were too full to eat this one (we had already eaten another)

twin trout catch!

Elk Lake. Awesome.

My first catch- 17 -18" cutthroat!

I am pretty sure this pika has been in the frozen water all winter. I love dead things.

Devil's pass? Not sure what it is called.

In the dorm bathroom.

The coolest ranger station ever. Belly River.

Looking beyond Cosley Lake in the far NE of Glacier.

Belly River valley

Thursday, July 7, 2011

July so far

July 1, Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, Canada

July 2, trail to Iceberg Lake

tourists at Iceberg Lake

July 4, St. Mary KOA

July 5, experiments with things

July 6, outside our room in the Upper Dorm

Monday, May 16, 2011

Just to further my point

Skyscanner's 2011 Travel Awards named the USA and Australia (tied) as having the "friendliest locals" of all the countries in the world... well, Western world I think.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

An Ode to Oz

This was supposed to be posted BEFORE the previous post... but for some reason it didn't. Sorry!

This is a ode to a country that is vast, self-centered, and wholly Western (in both the worldly sense, and the cowboy). It is an ode to a place where people are generally kind and welcoming, down-to-earth and ready-to-talk. It is an ode to a people that love their country, for all its faults and errors throughout its short history. This is an ode to Australia, which I came to love in the short time I was there, as it reminded me fondly of my own country, while being completely different. It's almost like we are brothers from different mothers. Or at the very least, Crocodile Dundee and Butch Cassidy are. I mean, we both have a lot of deserts and a lot of coastline, we both have Kmart and Target, and we both have race/class/social issues that we have been trying to work out for the past 100 years. Our economies are opposite right now (Australia on the up! US on a flatline!), and the Australian minimum wage ($18/hr) is about THREE TIMES that of the US. However, the good things in life stay the same: you walk into a bar in either country and the chatty old men come a-runnin', filling you with stories, jokes, and a dose of reality.

Such was our experience in south and central Australia. Ben and I spent a little over two weeks road trippin' it from Melbourne to the Red Centre (yes, that is an 're') and back, covering some Great Roads, National Parks, and a whole lot of nothingness. We started with The Great Ocean Road, which snakes its way along the coast of southern Oz, through Victoria and South Australia. We started in Lorne, where our free campsite gave us the false hope that this would be a cheap trip. That was the only free campsite we ever saw. We then hopped from cute coastal town to cute coastal town for the next few days, spotting koalas in trees (and witnessing our fist koala bear jam!) and admiring the fantastic surf, until landing on the mother ship of coastline in the south: The Twelve Apostles. The end of The Great Ocean Road is a 30 km stretch of shear cliffs, rock formations, and moon-like landscapes. The morning we saw it the sun peeked out from behind the clouds only long enough for us to get some awesome sun streaked views of the crazy scenery, and the ocean was so angry that sometimes the waves splashed us- several hundred feet above the water.

From there we headed to Grampians National Park, which, because it was Easter weekend (woops) was so overly crowded with people that we both felt claustrophobic and decided to continue on immediately. We decided to make our way towards Ayers Rock, 900 miles away, which before that point had only been discussed in speculation, but all of a sudden became a reality. Or favorite mantra: why not? We stopped only in Adelaide to check out the weekend market and buy some supplies for our road journey. When traveling in the Outback, one must pack well. Water, food, and extra tires if you plan on going off the main drag. We were to scared of our $3,000 deductible on the rental car to make any off road moves, so we settled for food and water. Off we went!

Our first stop (btw, all of these stops are literally the ONLY stops on the highway between Port Augusta and Alice Springs)

You know a country is big when you drive through absolutely nothing for multiple days. Much like driving through Nebraska, or Arizona, some days all we would see were a couple dead kangaroos on the side of the road. Luckily, we come from a place where driving two days just to get somewhere else is fairly common. We were aiming for Ayers Rock, Ben was undergoing a massive cold, and the highlight of each day was stopping at a Roadhouse to get a Lift (carbonated DELICIOUS lemon beverage) Come day #3 on the Adelaide-Darwin highway, we started to wonder whether this

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Return to Oz

Okay, the Royal Wedding (sorry, had to interrupt for a lunch break with mom at the new restaurant in Irving Park- Remix. if you are in Chicago, please check out this place. It is CHEAP, there are delicious crepes, the owner is super nice, and it is the only cute new restaurant in this neighborhood. Help it out!) 

The evening of the Royal Wedding (LIVE coverage began at 5pm in Australia), Ben and I decided to leave our hotel bar and head down the street to the recommended restaurant in town. We figured we could catch up on the wedding when we got back later. Little did we know, the wedding, even in Australia, was HUGE. We walked into The Austral, a cute historic building that had a refurnished bar and restaurant, to find just about every resident and visitor of Quorn that night. If they weren't there when we arrived, they arrived shortly thereafter, and at one point it was standing room only. Two big screen TVs were tuned to ABC, for all of the glorious red carpet coverage one could handle. Most people had dressed up for the occasion, but, unfortunately, no one was wearing any hats. People do love hats in Australia too, by the way. Horse races are still the biggest festivities of the year. 

We ordered our dinner, which we were thrilled about because I ordered beef cheeks and Ben ordered kangaroo (and it was not pb&j for once), and found a little table in the corner near two 40-something couples at the bar. They had begun their evening of drinking and revelry long before arriving at The Austral, and their wedding commentary pretty much made our night. Like most Aussies, they were quick to befriend us, and quick to start rolling out the comedy. Perhaps the wedding to Aussies was perfectly summed up by one of the women: "You know, we hate this [wedding]. We don't want to be part of this stupid republic. But it's like a car crash. You really don't want to watch it, but some sick part of you wants to." 

And so, the canary-like queen, the dagger-laden Victoria Beckham, and the bow-tied Princess Beatrice were all mocked, the British anthems were drowned out by raucous, drunken Aussie anthems, and, of course, all the Quornians still adored Kate in her dress. As the oaths of marriage were being made, the pudgy, middle-aged barmaid cracked the silence that had fallen with, "Is this a bad time to mention that I slept with William?!" All anyone could do was crack up. 

The remainder of our time in Australia was spent at the Grampians National Park, where we scrambled over boulders up the inaccurately named Mt. Difficult (not so difficult at all) and spent chilly nights around the campfire roasting sausages and playing with the resident wallaby. It was over a campfire in the Grampians that we learned of the death of Osama Bin Laden, from a French traveler we had met that night. It reminded me of the night I heard that Michael Jackson died, when I was at Charlie's, the only bar in Babb, Montana. The instances were equally surreal, as though I was looking and thinking about the world from the outside. I guess that is what happens when you are out of mass media coverage for long periods of time. 

My last night in Oz was spent in Lorne, where we began our journey. Because the tourist season is over now, as it is well into Fall, we were able to rent a whole cabin to ourselves! We cooked dinner, watched some of that mass-media-coverage we had been missing (but not necessarily missing, if you get my drift), and drank some great micro-brews. Up until that point, we hadn't found a really good beer the entire time we had been Down Under. Considering how much Aussies and Kiwis like to drink, we thought it a travesty. I guess they just drink to drink, and not for quality. Or, they haven't discovered the art of the micro-brew yet. Well, some have, and we managed to taste a couple! 

The next morning we headed for Melbourne, where I would fly to Sydney, and where Ben would decide what to do with the remaining few days he had in Australia. Though I was only there for about two weeks, I saw so much it felt like it must have been longer. I loved Australia, and I will definitely go back. If anyone has ever seen any Aussie movies (particularly musicals) from the last thirty years, there is usually at least one scene where people break out in song in a pub. Thus, it is the night in Quorn that stands out in my mind as the most typically Australian moment that we had, and we ate it up. I mean, they actually broke out in song. It reminded me of family gatherings at my parents' house. Generally, after everyone has eaten, and there is that lull when digestion takes precedence over conversation, my father and my godfather burst out in song. No one ever knows what they are singing or where it came from, but somehow they both know it and are belting it out across the turkey and cranberry sauce. So I think we must be siblings, us Americans and Aussies, because despite everything that may stress us out, we sure as hell love a good time. 


Thursday, May 5, 2011

Americans meet the Outback

Feeding the animals

Couldn't find Pride Rock in Africa... because it was in Australia

Salt flats

We've been upside down for too long

Ben really doesn't like the idea of being a fatty

Red dirt
Coober Pedy, Opal Capital of the World. The man buried under this keg thought he was the best brewmaster in the region, but he couldn't drink alcohol because he had cancer. Last laugh was on him... literally. 

Flowing locks on the longest jetty in Australia- Port Germein, South Australia.

Australia, au naturel

Kings Canyon National Park, Northern Territory

Grampians National Park, Victoria

Kangaroo and Joey, Grampians National Park

Uluru (Ayers Rock), Northern Territory

a real koala! Great Ocean Road, Victoria/South Australia

Monday, April 18, 2011

A five day layover in Bangkok

Wat Pho, also known as the Temple of the Reclining Buddha

Walking out of my hostel onto the tiny soi (side street) this morning, I ran into Johnny Depp. If he hadn’t started speaking in Thai-accented English, I may have had a minor heart attack. Dressed in full Pirates costumage, Johnny was a bit cheeky, and wouldn’t let me take his picture unless I bought one of his hemp necklaces. Alas, I had only 15 baht left, and I was forced to depart the country with only the memory of his likeness. I’ve never met an actual celebrity (unless some of the 1990s Bulls Dream Team counts), so I am counting this as my first.

Orchids at Pak Klong Talad, the Bangkok flower market
This is Bangkok. Strange and fantastic, a city of contrasts. The first three nights here I stayed near Chinatown, on a large thoroughfare near the main train station, Hua Lamphong. The hostel was almost sterile, so clean and bright and new that it was hard not to like it. Even though I slept in a room with 9 other people, they put new sheets on my bed and gave me a new towel everyday! I met cool folks and explored that area of the city; focusing my time in Chinatown (eating) and Silom and Siam (shopping, eating, and cultural exploits).

Khao San Road, early morning
My last three nights took me to the heart of cultural Bangkok, where I stayed on Khao San Road. The road itself is a backpacker’s hub, complete with bar upon bar, traveler upon traveler; a road that wakes up at around noon and doesn’t ever go to sleep (unless the glass piece/hemp necklace sellers somehow sell out). However, this hovel of guest houses and food is within walking distance to a  plethora of the cultural sites in the city- Wat Pho, the Grand Palace, the Chao Phraya and the National Museum. When I visit Bangkok again, I will not stay in Khao San… but at this point in my life, traveling alone and with no plan- I just had to do it. Luckily my hostel was down a quiet little soi, with zen gardens outside and antique cabinetry in, and made for the perfect escape from the mayhem.

Outside the MBK Center, a shopping mall with nearly 2,000 shops and stalls
In some ways, Bangkok is like any big city. Business men and women shuffle about in attractive suits, on and off the Metro, the Skytrain, out of the endless streams of pink and green cabs that fill the streets; all going somewhere important with important-looking faces scrunched around their cell phones having important-looking conversations. Young Thais fill the malls, scouring through racks of screen-printed tee-shirts and empire-waist dresses, haggling over the price of a pair of knockoff All-Stars, spending the only baht they have succumbing to the trend or creating their own.

Buddhist monks in the Phra Uposatha, or Ordination Hall, at Wat Pho
But in many ways, Bangkok is unlike any city I have ever experienced. It reminds me most of Istanbul; both caught in the midst of past and future, moving forward so quickly they are skidding on history like banana peels on a racetrack. Ironically enough, I spotted two separate (but potentially related) Turkish kebab food carts on Khao San Road this evening.

Delciously ripe okrong mangoes outside the temple
Which brings me to the part of Thailand that I didn't know about until I was here. Thais absolutely love to eat. I don’t know anyone in the U.S. that doesn’t like Thai food, and our Western love for the flavors and spices and combinations of this ethnic cuisine most likely stems from the fact that for Thais, food is life. From daybreak to daybreak, each curb in every neighborhood is host to a rotating circus of street food. In the morning it is usually fruit, juices, and roti, transforming into soups, meat and fish in midday, and noodles, rice, curries, skewers and veggies in the evening. Late into the night sweet stalls press on, selling various nuts encrusted with sugar, fruit and sticky sweet rice, mini donuts with glazes, Indian sweet balls, roti with fruit or chocolate, and some things I have never seen before, but look like noodles and sugar hardened into small lumps. It's as though everyone is a chef, and the world is their restaurant.

Pa Thong Ko, or Thai mini donuts, with chocolate and pandan drizzle
After almost a week in Bangkok, I have also come to adore the people. Every Thai I have met has been unquestionably friendly and hospitable. Whether due to 100 years of tourism or simply Thai nature, I felt welcome during my brief stay in the bustling city. Individuals tend to be reserved, but once approached by my foreign-self, open up with a warm and welcoming smile. While staring at a map on the street, a man came up and asked where I needed directions to, as he believed it was often easier in Bangkok just to ask a local than to stare at a map. Never would that happen on the streets of Chicago.

Wat Pho
Street food and hospitality came together the other night when I went in search of some (cliche, I know, but I hadn't had any yet) $1 pad thai. I wandered down the back alley by my hostel and found a host of vendors offering pretty much the same deal. Patiently waiting at a pad thai cart, a boy of about 13 came up and gave me a quick bright smile and screamed, “Pad Thai?!” loudly in my face. I giggled and told him I would like it with egg, which he whipped up in a matter of minutes on the wok. After handing over my 50 baht, he offered my change in his open hand, and quickly snatched it away when I reached for it. He laughed, did it again, and finally gave me my change. I then walked down the block in search of some accompaniments. Upon finding an empty pineapple cart, I glanced around, only to see the pad thai boy pop up from behind the cart and giggle. He was in all places! He quickly and meticulously cut the pineapple (fruit cutting is an art here), popped the bite-sized pieces in a plastic bag with a chopstick, and I had dinner and dessert. What a city. 

Even in Thailand, a world of endless food options... the arches exist.
Quintessentially Bangkok, the image most burned on my retinas from the trip was of a visit to the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute (read: Snake Farm). Within the museum area, three Buddhist monks were as jolly as schoolboys as they wandered around the formaldehyde-filled tubes, poking and giggling at each other in their orange robes. Spirituality meets nature. Monks meet snakes. The institute is an educational organization run by he Thai Red Cross and caters to nationals and internationals alike. I had read about the Snake Farm in Lonely Planet, and decided to go the minute I read that everyone gets to hold a giant python. The Institute was started in the 1920s, and is second only to a snake farm in Brazil in research and prestige. It was started by a group of royals who were born in the year of the snake (not a coincidence, but an intentional connection between science and religion) in order to research venomous snakes and to host an anti-venom program for Thailand.

Displays of various poisonous snakes at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute
The Institute today has a fantastic display of venomous and non-venomous snakes from throughout Thailand and the world, as well as information on anatomy, reproduction, first aid, etc. Everyday the venomous snakes are ‘milked’ of their venom for use in anti-venom by the Red Cross. There is also a snake-handling session every day, in which the researchers taunt cobras and pythons into action, all for the viewing pleasure of guests. I definitely gasped out loud a few times, but they knew what they were doing. The culmination of the handling session was when each member of the audience was able to hold the giant python! The snake was born at the institute and has never bitten anyone…yet. He didn’t start today, and I was able to discover what it feels like to hold a 50lb snake on my shoulders. Quite cool and smooth to the touch, actually. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t want him to tighten his grip around my neck any more than he did.

Most of my past week in Bangkok was so unbearably hot that I spent a large part of every day in the mall. To those malls, I owe a great thanks. To the shopping district of Siam, I thank you for blasting your air conditioning to a level that will dry my layers of sweat in a matter of minutes. To the Siam Discovery Center, I thank you for letting me into a niche of Thai life that I have never before seen- young-tech-savvy-geeks. To the Siam Paragon, I thank you for entertaining me for hours on end with a constant myriad stream of shoppers, and for the most fantastic food court on the planet (there is gourmet street food in the middle!). I do not thank the MBK Center because it emptied my wallet.

Parakeets for sale at the Chatuchak Market, the largest market in all of Thailand
There is no doubt in my mind that I will come back to Thailand sometime in my life. Hopefully, when I do, I can explore more of the country than just Bangkok. But for this trip, I think the city and I got down and gritty in a real way, and I liked it.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Traveling to Bangkok in the middle of April is much like I imagine it would be to lock oneself in a Ziplock bag, and then put that Ziplock bag in the microwave. It’s the kind of heat that I remember from the worst days of summer in Chicago, when you walk out of the house and instantly slump over, like a wilting flower. The sweat accumulates even before you step outside, as if in anticipation of the coming onslaught, and at the end of the day you really wish your shower could somehow produce ice cubes. It is also the type of heat that I recall from a similar latitude, (just one year ago!) on the island of Zanzibar. It’s a heat that, surprisingly enough, I have come to be able to live with while traveling. At least for a little while.


The difference between Zanzibar and Bangkok though, is two-fold. In Bangkok, there is air conditioning. In Bangkok, there are 7-Elevens. Put the two together, and even if you’re out visiting sight after sight, wat after wat, accumulating a layer of sweat that exceeds the amount of liquid you have ingested- at least you know that every block, you can pop in to the local quick-mart for a quick-cool. And when I mean they are on every block, I am not exaggerating. In Chinatown, in fact, there are two 7-Elevens directly across the street from each other. Perhaps they have contests to see who can sell the most Slurpees.


It is the weather in these dog days of summer that has for centuries caused the Thais to celebrate. However they are not celebrating the heat, they are celebrating the cooling monsoon rains that are to come, hopefully sooner rather than later. The three-day festival of Songkran, or Thai New Year, is April 13-15 every year, which conveniently (or not, depending how you look at it) happened to be the day I arrived in Bangkok. Though Thais follow the modern Western calendar, they continue to celebrate their own New Year, and with such vivacity I was beginning to wonder what life it like without Songkran. I knew that it was New Year before I arrived, but I had no idea what that would entail.


Perhaps unbeknownst to both Thais and Nepalis, the Songkran celebration runs parallel to the Hindu Holi celebration that I just experienced while in Nepal. Both heralding the coming monsoon rains, almost all festivities are based around 1) water and 2) colored paste. Whereas in Nepal Holi was mostly a sport for children, the people of Thailand have no such age/ability limits for their participation in the event. In fact, the reserved Thais seem to take this holiday as a once-yearly way of doing whatever the hell they want, without reservations. Everyone in the family, from baby-boo to 85-year-old grandma, is armed with a neon Super-Soaker- and they know how to use it. However, water pistols are not necessary in the art of soaking anything that walks. Cups, bowls, buckets…you name it, I saw it used. Perhaps the most entertaining folks to watch were the cruisers- gangs of friends driving around, crowded in the back of their friends’ pick-up, smearing white paste on buses, spraying innocent bystanders, and generally having a raucous good time.


My first encounter with Songkran was my second day in Bangkok, when I decided to go for a walk early in the morning. I wasn’t really sure where I was going, and was pretty sure I would walk into a water trap. I originally kept my distance from all tuk-tuk drivers, small children, and those sneaky grandmas, until I started sweating so profusely that I didn’t care if I ran into a human-induced waterfall. As if reading my mind, I turned a corner and was immediately spotted by 5 teenage boys and their 3 younger siblings, loading up a 100-gallon barrel with a hose from their house. Hesitantly, they all held their buckets and looked at me. I could tell they weren’t sure whether to do it or not. They really wanted to, but I was not Thai, and I was the only person on the street. I continued walking towards them, put down my bag, and said, “Yep, go ahead!”  To which no less than 6 buckets were dumped over my body. It felt fantastic. No wonder people like this festival.


Three days and many saturations later, I got a little sick of it. Like colors on Holi, the Thais smear some type of white-paste-substance all over your face, as a type of blessing, but it’s really just nasty. If it was just a water festival, I would be fine with it. But the paste is gross. I avoided most contact with it, except that at one point an adorable little Thai boy asked me if he could give me some- and how could I resist that? For the greater part of day 2 and 3 though, I stayed inside. The folks from my hostel and I took cabs where we wanted to go (tuk-tuk, or open three-wheel vehicle, would have been a bad idea- I saw people getting hosed), and lived a relatively sheltered couple of days. I met some good folks, and we formed a posse that would have been intimidating had we needed to use it for our protection. Luckily, we never did.


Today Songkran is over, leaving behind only a filmy white paste over the city’s streets and buses. Today was the first day I realized that Bangkok does not just induce a sensory overload on holidays, it induces it every waking moment of its existence. Contrasts of colors, smells, and textures fly at you at an alarming rate in Bangkok. Thai food is loved world-wide for its use of complements- sweet and sour, spicy and salty, rich and light- and the same can be said of nearly every aspect of life in Bangkok. A clapboard house on stilts abuts a small river in Baan Krua, a Thai Muslim community known for hand-woven silk, while one block away wealthy trust-fund babies shop at Siam Paragon for the latest in international couture. A taught-faced old man sits cross-legged on a mat, selling religious amulets to browsing traders in the shadows of the glistening gold and mirrored spires of Wat Pho, while inside the temple complex the massage parlor is packed to the gills, paying customers ready to have their body kneaded and twisted to a fine pulp by some of the country’s finest masseurs.


My mind has not stopped racing, attempting to process everything I am seeing, for the past four days. I only have two days left, and I’m hoping on the plane ride to Melbourne I will finally be able to relax. Though I’m sure there are far crazier cities in Asia, Bangkok twists your mind with such cultural, spiritual, artistic, musical, natural, and material complexities that you hardly know who you are at the end of the day. I’d like to tell you what I think about this place, but I haven’t gotten that far yet. So I’ll just give snippets.


Today began early, when I met a couple fellow hostellers to go to the Chatuchak weekend market, about a 45 min train ride from the center of town. Massive and sprawling, the lanes of the ‘JJ’ (for short) Market wove from knockoff designer clothing to classy boutique, from Thai spices and herbs to buckets and buckets of fake plastic fruit. Perhaps my favorite find of the day, the baby animals section. There were week-old puppies (huskies! wiener dogs!), kittens, guinea pigs, and my personal favorite- bunnies, with the girl bunnies dressed in tutus. After an interesting snack of crushed ice with brown flavorless jelly and brown sugar (definitely doing that at home), we headed back to the hostel, for fear that we would die in the belly of the beast and never be heard from again.


I switched hostels, to a place closer to the ‘sights’ for the next few days, as I haven’t had a chance to see anything yet (as I was avoiding the wet-festival). Then Natasha, from London, and I decided to get massages at Wat Pho, a temple/Buddhist monastery and school, and also the premier massage school in all of Bangkok…if not Thailand. As I have only had one massage in my life, and never had a Thai massage, I was thoroughly excited. I got even more excited when I realized it was only $13 for a full hour. This may not be the only massage I get while here.


Each massage room was lined with at least 25 beds, roughly double-bed size, and all right up next to each other. The rooms air-conditioned and smelling sweetly of tea tree oil, I could have cared less that I was going to be lying a foot away from some old rotund man also getting a massage. After changing into the supplied pajamas (I mistakenly wore a dress), I clambered onto the bed, and things began.


The best way that I can think of to describe a Thai massage is a combination of deep tissue, chiropractics, and forced yoga. Basically, the masseuse just has at it. She gets all over ya. Using her body against yours most of the time, she pulls, pushes, and rotates your appendages into formations you didn’t even know were possible. She cracks your knuckles, she pops your back, and she sits on your shoulders. At one point she slowly pressed her thumbs into my ears until I felt a little lightheaded, and then she popped them. It was all very interesting. It is much like I would imagine a personal trainer would have you do to yourself, but she did it for you. Ah, it was fantastic. Plus, at the end they give you a little bottle of iced green tea!


After that we had a wander around Wat Pho, the home of the world’s largest reclining Buddha. He was huge. There were no signs in English telling us exactly how huge, but I’m sure you could look it up online if you were that interested. Though he was impressive, by big Buddha standards, it’s the outsides of these Wats that impresses me. There are buddhas everywhere, hundreds of them at ground level, and then above your head loom the temple and school spires, reaching to the sky in incredible mosaic and gold shimmeriness. I know that is not a word, but I can’t think of any other way to describe them. Being in Thailand makes me wonder a little more about Buddhism, as I was pretty sure the Lord Buddha taught non-attachement… and all these wats seem mortifyingly extravagant for such a humble dude. Not to mention counter-productive to what he was trying to accomplish. Either way, they are gorgeous works of architecture, and definitely require a second trip tomorrow morning to take some more photos.


After mowing down some buttery-delicious mangoes, Natasha and I headed to find the flower market and then hop a boat back to Chinatown, where we planned to have dinner. Completely lacking my normal intuition about cardinal directions in this city, we asked some police men where the flower market was, and got both a handshake and “welcome to our country” from the uniformed men. Possibly the best interaction with police that I have ever had, I am starting to believe all this stuff people say about the Thais being extremely hospitable. Even yesterday, I was just blankly staring at a map in the subway, for no reason at all, and had two people come up and ask me if I needed any help. And this is not like the help of Nepal, where they wanted money and/or something in return… it was genuine concern for my well being. Amazing.


We made it to the flower market, another sensory overload, where the scents of roses and carnations, orchids and marigolds mixed with fish sauce and veggies frying, as the market closed up and vendors began to make their dinners. There were more flowers in one place than I have ever seen in my life.  Little old ladies were crouched around buds, sewing them into ornate offerings, and people scuttled about them with armloads of bouquets to take home.


We made it onto a river boat, quite a nice way to get out of the street and crowds of the city, and wound our way around the Chao Phraya to Chinatown. We intended to find a ‘street food market’ that I had read about, but I neither knew where it was nor had brought my book with me, so it was kind of a shot in the dark. We had been walking all day in flip-flops, and were thoroughly exhausted, sweaty, and in dire need of food. After about an hours worth of walking around what we thought was Chinatown, we were ready to give up. Nothing was open, we didn’t see any street vendors, and no one was out walking. Where in the world are Chinese restaurants not open all the time?? When we had almost given up hope and were about to go to the only soup shop we saw, we spotted a sign in English. The sign announced that we were entering “Yaowarat Road” one of the “busiest food hovels in all of Bangkok”. Fifty steps later and we were taken directly to China. Blazing lighted signs announcing restaurants, a street full of taxis, buses, and people, and street stalls- hundreds of them- lined the sidewalks. We wondered where it all had come from, as not a ½ block earlier we had seen no one around.


The only thing that was open on the street were the few restaurants, expensive places serving rare seafood, but street stalls filled nearly every inch of sidewalk and curb space, so that in order to see what they all were, you had to walk in the street with the traffic. Perhaps fortunately, not many of the stalls signs were in English. If they had been , we may never have decided what to eat. Instead, we got BBQ pork buns (bao) for about $0.50 as an appetizer, and then moved on the BBQ kebab section ($1), where each kebab had 4 huge pieces of chicken, two peppers, a pineapple piece, and a tomato. We wanted something to finalize the meal, like noodles or soup, but nothing of the sort was in English. Slightly scared that we would unknowingly be fed shark fin, we took the risk and went to a soup stall. Pointing to the one picture on their sign, we pantomimed that we would like what was photographed (a clear soup with some noodles, and some other little surprise balls, etc.). The man looked at us a little funny, shrugged, and pointed to the two prices- did we want the $1 or $1.50 option?  

The kids (Part 4, Final Episode)



Well well. The time has come for some quips about the final two children at Harka, Ashish and Tulie. These two have been there nearly their entire lives (Ashish since he was about 1 1/2 years old, Tulie since the day after she was born, literally). The two have grown up knowing nothing other than what it is like to have 17 siblings- which means they are frequently bossed around, are sometimes bossy themselves, they never let anyone else touch the toy they are playing with, and when there is extra rice, they are the first kids in line for seconds. They have never experienced much traumatic change, as they have only really known Harka, and to them, that is just the way life is. 

Ashish - 6 years old 

I mentioned quite a bit about Ashish when writing about Shishir, but I didn't mention how absolutely animated that boy can be at times. It is almost as if he were cut straight from Vaudeville- wacky faces being his prime mode of expression. He also loves to dance, but his dance is more of the Elaine-from-Seinfeld variety- extremely awkward. He does a sort of robotic flick of the hips, matched with Macarena-eque arm movements, to which everyone watching rolls on the floor laughing. And that is what Ashish lives for. Attention. If he's got yours, he's in heaven, he feeds off of it. 

He loves attention, and needs it both from crowds and individuals. He is good for a while with entertaining a group, but he would often want to single me out to play with him, and him alone. I would appease him for a few minutes, and then tell him it was time to let others join. It's good to have one-on-one time, but it's also good to learn how to share. Overall, Ashish just wants to do well, and wants to impress. Thus, he is doing pretty well in school, and tries very very hard. He was always asking me to give him 'homework', sometimes for 4 hours straight. I would ask him to write his days of the week, months of the year, 10 forms of transportation, 10 animals (to which he asked, "Land or Sea?"), things even an American 6 year old couldn't list! 

He's still considered one of the youngest kids at the home, which means he hardly has any chores besides watching the goats occasionally. And if any of you are wondering, his little protruding potbelly is completely gone, but his head is still as big and bobble-heady as ever! 

Tulie (Srijana) - 5 years old 

Tulie is tulie. I love her. A little monkey face with huge dimples and a spark like nobody's business. She's got some charisma, that's for sure. Yes, like all 5 year olds, she throws tantrums sometimes. Usually about something someone took away from her, and she weeps for a few minutes and gets over it. She's also got a bite that can bring Jamuna or Ashish to tears (lord only knows what she says to them sometimes). But most of the time, she is just cute as a freaking button. She paddles around wearing goofy outfits, usually involving a dress that is too small and shows her bum and a doo-rag of some type. She has a fantastic sense of humor, and would often come up to me, point out something hilarious (like herself in gum boots) and crack up. 

Tulie also loves making faces, and the faces/poses she would assume when she saw me with my camera were a hoot. She has definitely grown up with digital cameras, because she knows what she's doing- and she finds that hilarious as well. Tulie was 1st in her class (which I think is called Nursery) this past year, and she is going on to class 1. I'm not sure what you have to do to be 1st in Nursery class, but she has done it! If English has anything to do with it, she is definitely doing well in that subject. Her communication skills are through the roof, and her little Nepali lisp makes it all the cuter. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Kids (Part 3)






“The competence of Nepalese children is staggering; if all the adults were to die tomorrow they’d manage perfectly well on their own.”

 I stumbled on this perfect quote while reading Christopher Pye-Smiths’s Travels in Nepal, that I picked up at a guest house in Pokhara. It definitely rings true with the children at Harka, perhaps more so than children with parents. I arrived at Harka unannounced (I lost Laxmi’s cell phone number) after my week in Sangachok, to a bunch of smiling children and…no adults. Though there was another volunteer there (Theeban, from London - who must have arrived just after I left for Pokhara), Parvati had gone to Kathmandu to aid her ailing father, and Laxmi was off working. The children, however, looked after me as though they were running their own guest house, and immediately showed me where I’d be sleeping and had tea on the burner. And while we wouldn’t ever let our 9 year olds near a kitchen knife, I am not the least bit alarmed when I see Manessa or the twins slicing up vegetables in their hands (for lack of a cutting board). I’m also not alarmed when I look out at the field and see a pint-sized child wielding a water buffalo to greener pastures, even though she is 1/8th it’s size. It’s all relative in this crazy world.


Manessa - 9 years old

 Ahhh, Manessa. Manessa came to Harka late in our volunteer stint in 2008, as somewhat of an addition to mother-and-son duo Momma Samjana and Babu (otherwise known as Ganesh).  For a while Rebecca and I were unclear as to whether Manessa actually had any connection to Samjana, who came to the orphan home with her young son because she had nowhere else to go (her husband died from drinking too much). It came to pass that Manessa actually had no connection with Samjana, but happened to arrive on the same day at the orphan home, so she kind of took her under her wing. Just a few weeks ago, when looking through photos from 2008, Manessa chirped in and announced ‘Mommy!’ when she saw a picture of Samjana, though the pair hasn’t been at Harka for at least a year. So there is definitely still a connection, even if they may never see each other again.

 Good-hearted Manessa won’t let anything get her down, that’s for sure.  Though her face is somewhat stern all the time, with a crumpled brow as though she is trying to remember the digits in the pi sequence, one cheerful look in her direction and she is all jaggedy-toothed smiles. Her tough exterior (she’s stronger looking than the waif-like other children her age) does not reveal that she is in fact a major cuddler, and would often burrow herself as deeply into my lap as humanly possible.

 Slightly older than the twins and Shishir, Manessa has taken on her duties as an ‘older girl’ while maintaining her playfulness. Manessa is the one (sometimes with the help of Ganga) that makes everyone’s beds in the morning, sweeps the rooms, washes the dishes, and takes care of the animals. A natural shepardess, she can get those buffalos and goats moving in the blink of an eye- while I struggle getting the cow not to trample me.

 Manessa just passed class 3 at the new local primary school with flying colors- she was 3rd in her class- and in one week’s time she will be moving on to class 4. When I attended the school award ceremony earlier this month, it was Manessa that showed me around, pointing out everyone’s classrooms and teachers. If Soniya is the caregiver, Manessa is following in rightful suit.

 Shishir – 8 years old

 A boy in all senses of the word, Shishir (who we inaccurately called Secil three years ago, and what it still sounds like to my non-Nepali ears) can be rough, silly, and creative- and is probably the most independent of the children at the home. In 2008 Rebecca and I noticed his independent nature immediately, as at the age of 5 he was always off on his own, exploring his surroundings. He can thoroughly entertain himself for hours, and I believe he prefers it that way. Sometimes the hectic atmosphere of having 16 brothers and sisters get the better of him, and he explodes in a whirlwind of emotion (generally resulting in hitting someone and yelling at them). As someone who thoroughly enjoys her alone time, I can identify. Sometimes you just want everyone to go away!

 This past school year, Shishir and Ashish were sponsored to go to the local private school, Greenland. Private schools in Nepal usually have a school bus to pick children up, and have far less holidays than government schools, so the boys spent a lot of time together. If the two were to be in the same class in, say, the US, they would never be friends. While Shishir is independent and creative, Ashish is constantly seeking attention and approval. The 7 hours a day that they spend together at school and the 10 hours they sleep side by side at night leaves Shishir with little time apart from Ashish. This union results in a somewhat volatile relationship between the two, and rightfully so. They can play, but it usually ends in one punching the other, and Shishir is usually the culprit. That being said, there were few times when I could blame him, as I often wanted to punch Ashish myself!

 Though he does keep to himself most of the time, there was a point in every day when he cozied up to my side and talked to me for a little bit. Whether it was bounding home from school to tell me about what he learned, or after dinner to fall asleep next to me with his head on my shoulder, Shishir is a thoroughly adorable child. He absolutely loves music, and his dance moves are to die for. It’s almost as if he has some estranged kinship to Justin Timberlake, with an equally ambiguous racial makeup. He could be from anywhere in the world (well, except Africa).  His smile could melt the coldest of hearts, especially when he creeps up to show you something that he just discovered, as if you are the only person in the world worth showing.

 Ganga – 8 years old

 The more reserved twin, Ganga has become much more grown up in the past three years. The sisters couldn’t be more different, and usually don’t even associate with each other unless they are arguing. With her sharp features giving an air of distinction, Ganga keeps to herself much of the time. She helps out around the house, especially with cleaning, when she rides a fine line between anal and OCD. I had to laugh to myself the first night I was at Harka, putting away dishes with Ganga in the kitchen. There are two large shelves for all the plates, cups, and pots, and I had been putting the dishes away accordingly. However, when Ganga joined me, she made it very clear that I was not doing it correctly. She proceeded to stack each shelf meticulously, resulting in perfect pyramids of cups, plates organized by size, and utensils arranged by size and shape. Perhaps she just has a mathematical mind. 

 Though Ganga’s English is not as good as Jamuna’s (because Jamuna rambles constantly), Ganga was first in her class (2) this term. She loves playing the caregiver for little Tenzin, and keeps track of his general whereabouts. Like most of the children, she loves to dance, but for her it is an art. Some of the kids dance crazy-like and goofy, but when you watch Ganga dance you know she has memorized her moves. She and Manessa will often perform Nepali dances together, working out the moves before they reveal the final product to me in a carefully performed routine. Ganga is reserved, but that doesn’t stop her sweetness from popping onto my lap every so often for some affection. I think all of these kids have gotten used to physical affection through volunteers and each other, which is a fantastic change from the doe-eyed alarm that many of them expressed when we bombarded them with hugs during our stay in 2008. Physical affection goes a long way in child development, and I believe it has had a great affect on the well-adjusted children that all the children at Harka have become.

 Jamuna – 8 years old

 The polar opposite of Ganga, Jamuna is a bubbly chatterbox that pops around like a fart in a bottle. Three years ago, Rebecca and I had a hard time figuring out the twins, especially Jamuna. She cried about practically everything, and most of the children mocked her for it. We spent the greater part of three months trying to toughen up her sensitivity, which today seems to be practically non-existent! These days Jamuna only throws a fit as often as the next kid, and usually for good reason. Instead, she reminds me of a jolly old woman that is perfectly content talking to herself and bossing others around. Upon first arrival, I couldn’t understand a word she was saying, as she talked a mile a minute and apparently to everything- human and inanimate objects alike. I started to wonder whether she was a bit batty, actually.

 However, a few days getting to know the kids’ accents, and I realized that Jamuna was actually using quite a bit of English in her ramblings, and was significantly more adept at expressing herself to me than many of the other young children. The kids don’t mock her anymore, but I definitely found myself laughing at her completely random ramblings. One night, while Jamuna and I were tending to the cook fire, a man came into the yard from the road and asked her a question. He directed the question at her, as he assumed I didn’t know Nepali (good assumption), and she responded with a curt answer. He turned to walk away, and she started chattering at him. He turned around and smirked, and her rambling continued at an increasing crescendo as he continued his walk down the road. After he was out of sight, she continued talking to herself in a low voice for some minutes, before announcing to me, “Miss, come. Water for vegetables, please.” Lord only knows what she was talking about to the man or to herself, but whatever it was ceased to be of importance when she needed to complete her task at hand. And so it is, hanging out with Jamuna.

 Between her chattering and cook fire duties (she is usually in charge keeping the fire going, when all the other children are watching TV- she doesn’t mind), Jamuna  can often be seen staring off into space with a look on her face somewhat similar to what I feel when I’ve been awake for more than 15 hours. Not completely blank, but unable to process complete thoughts. When I caught her with such a look, I’d just shout, “Jamuna!” and her gaze would snap to me, she’d smile an explosive smile, and run over into my arms. Perhaps she’s just a dreamer. Aren’t all the geniuses in the world a little bit loopy?

 Suman – 7 years old

 I was reading through the journal I have been keeping throughout my travels, and I fell upon a section written during my first few days at the orphan home in which I found Suman a test of my patience. I now have no recollection as to why I felt that way, as my perception of him upon leaving is the exact opposite. For as much as Jamuna and Ganga are dislike, Suman and Sujan are alike. Though three years apart, the brothers are very much tied to each other in everything they do. Suman looks up to Sujan, and Sujan sets a very good example. Suman is still young though, and plays the baby card a lot. He whines when he doesn’t get his way, and he seeks comfort in my lap early in the morning (when he hasn’t quite woken up yet) and at night when he is sleepy.

 That being said, if Sujan can help with chores, Suman will be right behind him. The boys aren’t that different in height, and it is a sight to see them struggling with a load of buffalo grass 10 times their size (“Miss! Help?”). Suman likes to read stories, and he is usually the only one left listening at the end of a book I’m reading. He also loves to tell me stories based solely on the pictures of a book, which requires an impressive grasp of English for a 7 year old.

 The cutest image of Suman is one I forgot to catch on film, which ritualistically happened every morning and evening, despite the rising temperature, when he would put on his rainproof Quecha parka, pull up the hood, and cinch the toggles so that his little chubby face was the only thing showing. It reminded me of my brother Alex, who at the same age religiously rolled up his pants, despite the weather, as if he were expecting a flash flood.