9:30 P.M. local time (11:45 A.M. EDT)
We’re all sitting in this really cool Internet cafe—David on my left, and Bruce on my right—each tending to his personal window back to the life back home. Chinese lanterns give this place a soft, soothing glow. It’s Bruce’s favorite Internet cafe here, on the second floor of Alice’s Restaurant. Yes, that’s right, named after the Arlo Guthrie song. The Hotel California is down the street.
A few quick tech notes about Nepal.
Nepal’s a pretty techie country. We’re using Pentium II computers for this connection, and we’re sending the dispatches via our company’s Web-based e-mail. Thanks to TechRepublic’s IT department for setting up that feature recently! Across the street is another Internet cafe, and there are several more in the two blocks around us. Isn’t it nice to know that with Web e-mail, you can never be far from home? Even in Nepal, the Internet is shrinking the world. Nortel, by the way, put in the first cellular network last year (which Ang Karma, the head of the sherpa service we’re using, uses constantly to keep in touch).
Ang Karma says that high tech has changed trekking forever, and for the better. He feels that communication is vital. Just today he received a call from a homesick trekker wanting to know if any flights would be coming in nearby. (These would be evacuation flights.) We were standing on top of a 7,000-foot mountain we had just climbed when the phone bleeped. Ang Karma got in touch with his office, and found out that, had the guy called just two hours earlier, he could have gotten him out. Bad luck. Last week, one of Ang Karma’s cook staff came down with a severe case of high altitude related pulmonary and cerebral edema. The call came in via satellite phone to Ang Karma’s cell phone, and he was able to arrange a helicopter rescue (at a cost of about $7,000 by the way, so it doesn’t pay to get sick, as if you could help it).
So you see, in Nepal, high tech is making some important and probably irrevocable changes to the way things are done, from business to tourism.
Okay, enough about tech, let’s get to the stuff that’s different, because tech makes Nepal seem like any country.
We’re staying in a section of Kathmandu called Thamel (Ta-MAL). It is replete with Europeans and other nationals. I notice many Israelis, for example. They are trekkers, climbers, tourists, or those looking for enlightenment. There are guesthouses and hotels all over. Our hotel is called the Nirvana Gardens (good place to prepare for a trek, huh?), and it features mattresses as hard as boards, an incredibly friendly staff, and lots of hot water.
Nepalese people, mainly Buddhists and Hindu, are extremely kind but extremely poor by Western standards. Yet we are always greeted with either a salute or fingers touching in a prayer position and a bow, as well as the word Namaste.
It’s true that everywhere we go, people try to sell us everything from opium to Buddha statues. And if you want something—say you see some prayer beads at a street-side stand—you have the opportunity to bargain.
Today, other than climbing a massively brutal peak (even Dave admits to being peaked during that climb), we took a guided tour of the city, courtesy of Rudra, who has the distinction of being both a Hindu and a Buddhist. (You’re born Hindu; you can become a Buddhist if you want.) Rudra is flying ahead to Lukla tomorrow and will prepare the staff and gear for our arrival. We’ll be arriving the following morning by means of a small prop plane (you know, the one that lands uphill).
We visited Bhakdapor, a village on the outskirts of Kathmandu that was an ancient Hindu temple site. While visiting this venerable site with wood carved in intricate designs, I had to learn a new word, “Chi-na,” which means, “no thank you.” However, it doesn’t really work that effectively.
Let me say a few words about driving—which strikes me as a feat not short of miraculous. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s hard to imagine driving down a one-lane road that sports two-way traffic with scores of people streaming down either side. There are cows in the middle of the street, motorbikes, rickshaws, bicycles, laborers carrying bags of concrete mix, huge rice bags, or wood with the aid of a head strap, and horns honking warnings everywhere. There’s the dust and fumes and flashing impressions: schoolgirls walking by in their blue uniforms, schoolboys walking by with their ties, chums holding hands or with arms around each other’s shoulders as men have license to do here, women in saris or other Tibetan attire, or just in jeans, girls holding on to their rides on the backs of motorcycles, glimpses of half-built houses, piles of bricks, dust, and more dust, children playing, street-side vendors with cartons of vegetables or bread or tea, people carrying brass pitchers, and water trucks with hoses streaming out drinking water. And to top it off, you realize there is not one traffic light in the whole city—just intersections flowing into each other. And by the way, traffic works British style: on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to, adding to the impression of chaos and impending wrecks. I bow to our driver. I am not worthy.
Next we visited Pashupathi Nath, a large Hindu complex with what must seem to westerners, to be grim spiritual business. The Hindu bring their newly dead to the river that flows through the complex. They shroud and ritually prepare the body, placing upon the shroud a red and white powder. The body is laid on the stones that make up the riverbank. After what appears to be a ritual mourning period, the body is placed upon stacks of bamboo and cremated. The white smoke rises up over the complex in several streams (one for each bonfire) that flow out over Kathmandu. Monkeys (I don’t know what kind) have the run of the place, running over the corrugated roofs, climbing up and down drainpipes, and scampering over handrails and walls.
While we watched the rituals, a man came up and anointed me with a red and yellow spot on my forehead, Indian style, and put yellow petals in my hair. It was a blessing, so I was told, the third eye of Buddha. He wanted money for doing so. I refused (you have to or you would have no money left when people, uninvited, try to carry your bags or do things like this), and carefully and respectfully removed the powder and flowers. It was, though, an odd feeling to be so anointed, like an Old Testament prophet.
Finally we drove to the biggest stupa, or Buddhist shrine, in Kathmandu, a circular structure that rises up, called Boudha Stupa. Painted on the circular white stone is a pair of eyes that gaze down upon the world. Monks in red robes walk around clockwise, along with a constant flow of the devout, telling their prayers on prayer beads made out of bone. The monks wheel prayer wheels and carry incense burners.
On ropes leading from the street up are hundreds, maybe thousands, of the prayer flags that flap everywhere that you’ve seen in Everest documentaries: blue, white, red, green, yellow, written with a mantra. We joined the throng with Rudra and walked several times around.
Finally, after a long, long day, we thanked our guide, had some dinner, and now we’re off to an early night. We need a good night’s sleep—it starts getting hectic soon. We’re in great spirits and can’t wait to get into the country and begin our trek to Island Peak.
Can’t wait to see David’s dispatch on this.
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Mike Jackman is an editor-in-chief of TechProGuild, an editor of PC Troubleshooter and Windows Support Professional, and also works as a freelance Web designer and consultant. Together with his co-editor-in-chief David Bard, he is traveling to Nepal to report on high-altitude technology and to climb 20,285-foot Imja Tse. In his spare time (when he can find some), Mike’s an avid devourer and writer of science fiction, parent to two perpetually adolescent cats, and a hiking enthusiast.