Tag Archives: travel

One Sketch at a Time: How to Record Your Travels

This is a story I wrote for Ethos Magazine about University of Oregon Professor Ken O’Connell. Ken offers some great advice and inspiration for unique ways to record your travel experiences.

On a balmy April afternoon, artist Ken O’Connell sits in his office, chatting about art supplies, tiny Italian villages, and Japanese Anime conventions. Quickly, one thing becomes clear: Ken O’Connell would be the perfect travel companion. He isn’t content with simply snapping a photograph of a beautiful doorway or cathedral on his travels. Instead, he chooses to document what he sees in sketchbooks, seventy of them to be exact.

O’Connell’s collection of sketchbooks are individually numbered with the locations he visited while filling their pages. A peek inside the cover of number sixty-eight reads: “Canada, Japan, Germany, Oregon.” The pages burst with pencil drawings, vibrant watercolor scenes, haphazard notes to himself, various addresses, and stamps from around the world.
O’Connell’s life, like his sketchbooks, is packed with color and creativity. As a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s Art Department, he teaches digital arts classes and will begin a product design class in Portland summer 2010. He also is the president of his own company, Imagination International, Inc., which imports brightly colored Copic markers from Japan.

Continue reading here…

BOOKS: Catfish and Mandala

I’d been wanting to read Catfish and Mandala: A Vietnamese Odyssey for several years now, so when I saw a used copy in a Kathmandu bookstore, I immediately snatched it up. I have not found many pieces of travel literature that focus on Vietnam and lately I’ve been especially interested in learning and reading about the Vietnam War, the country’s particular brand of communism and the economic changes that are rapidly taking place from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham served as a spectacular base and jumping off point for further research and learning about the Vietnam War. This book was the perfect place to begin my quest to truly understand this time period in Vietnam. Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s story about his deeply personal journey from his home California back to his birthplace in Vietnam. Pham was a child of the Vietnam War and his parents fled the country when he was around 6 years old. With a bicycle and a vague idea that returning to Vietnam after several decades as an immigrant in the United States would clear up some of the conflict that the uprooting created within his family, Pham departs from California with very little money and very few plans, expect that he wanted to bike ride from Saigon to Hanoi and visit his birthplace in between.

When I began Catfish and Mandala I thought the majority of the book would be dedicated to Pham’s actual bicycle journey in Vietnam. In reality, while the trip makes up a central role in the plot, the real meat of the book intertwines Pham’s troubled recent family history, told from both his point of view and from the point of view of his parents, who sacrificed a great deal for their children to get them safely out of Vietnam to a new life in America.

Catfish and Mandala is an important read for several reasons. First, it offers a very personal back story about the Vietnam War that I feel, especially as an American, I have heard very little about. I think it is important to understand wars and conflict on a larger scale, but to truly get a sense of what was going on in the country at that time, one must understand what was happening on a micro level, with specific people and individual family units. I had a similar feeling about First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, which is about the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid to late 70s.

The second reason I think this is am important read, especially for Americans, is that it wonderfully illustrates the trials and tribulations of immigrants in the United States. Through Pham’s storytelling, we come to understand the economic and emotional strains that immigrant families experience in the United States. The reality for the Phams is, as often seems to be, quite different from what they dream America would be like while in Vietnam. This is often a sentiment I cannot really explain accurately when speaking with Nepalis who view the U.S. as some sort of bastion of hope and perfection, somewhere that if they can possibly move to, will be the solution to all their problems. In reality, many Nepalis and other immigrants who end up in the U.S. after much dreaming, work low-paying, low-skill jobs that many Americans do not want to do themselves. They are also isolated from their family and the tight-knit support system of their home country (for a further look into this issue, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a great read). While many of the issues I hear about regarding immigrants to the U.S. deal with people who come illegally from Mexico, I think it would behoove Americans to read Catfish and Mandala to get a deeper understanding about the realities of an immigrant family in U.S.

I highly recommend Catfish and Mandala for those interested in both a broad and a personal history of the Vietnam War years. Pham’s words are carefully crafted and his story is poignant. This is an important book that puts into perspective recent Vietnamese history, as well as challenges faced by immigrant families in the U.S. Pham’s epic bicycle journey through Vietnam, of course, adds great adventure and texture to the book, which in the end, weaves together history, travel narrative and family lineage tales from abroad.

BOOKS: The Lady and the Monk

I was quite excited to read another of Pico Iyer’s books, as his series of essays on Asian cultures titled Video Night in Kathmandu is one of my all-time favorites. The Lady and the Monk takes place over four seasons, one year starting in autumn, in Kyoto, Japan. He travels to Kyoto with the intention to live a monkish existence, renouncing some aspects of the material world with the hopes of further understanding Zen Buddhism, Japan and himself. After a short stay at a local Kyoto monastery with several peculiar Japanese monks, Iyer quickly moves into another ascetic space that suits him better: a small guesthouse full of interesting, strange and eccentric foreign characters. After Iyer moves out of the first monastery, I felt that his mission to understand Japan, the culture and the people took on a new character that focused less on Zen Buddhism and more on the uniquely mysterious individual and collective psyche of the country.

Iyer soon meets Sachiko, a Japanese woman who seems to want to both embrace and spurn the Japanese ideals set out for her as a woman, a mother and a wife. Sachiko both conforms and rebels against the rigid cultural rules set out for her by her home country and her family, which makes for some intriguing conflict, with Iyer as the “Western” intermediary between Sachiko’s reality and fantasy.

The Lady and the Monk was like one long poem, perhaps overly flowery at some points, but I think the flowery language was meant to reflect the deep aesthetic appeal of Japanese society. When I think of Japan, I think of utmost simplicity, but also an incredible sense of beauty that emerges from that simplicity. Iyer captures this feeling quite well, too well sometimes, mimicking the soft pinkness of a cherry blossom, the curve of a flower petal and the uncomplicated solitude of a Buddhist monastery with his words. Iyer’s immersion into Japan, which seems as complete as can be for a foreigner, allowed me to see Japan from a new perspective through his discerning and astute eyes.

In the beginning, I was a bit confused about Iyer’s goal to become a Zen Buddhist monk. It was almost a haphazard mission, just some reason to go to Japan, live there and write for a year (not a bad mission). He doesn’t fare very well in the monasteries or the temples, only staying for short periods of time. His understanding of Zen Buddhism and the Japanese culture’s relation to the religion mostly comes from other people he meets, mostly Westerners, as well as a plentitude of Japanese literature.

Ninomaru Garden, Kyoto, Japan: Simply beautiful, beautifully simple. Photo by: jimg944

I got a deep sense of loneliness from reading this book, but I think that was the point. Maybe the feeling is was not exactly loneliness per say, but it surely was solitude. For example, when Iyer is walking through quiet streets, lanes covered in fallen pink cherry blossoms, or when he is exploring the somewhat creepy and dark sex and “entertainment” industry in Japan. It is lonely, but that seems to be what Pico Iyer is looking for: loneliness and solitude as tools to help him discover himself and more about Zen Buddhism and Japan.

Sachiko’s character, the conflicted young woman whom Iyer develops a deep friendship (and maybe more?), was one that I never truly connected with. She remained a mystery to me and her conflict between wanting to take on Western cultural values, but being stuck with the Japanese ones was awkward, mostly because Iyer describes Sachiko is quite childish. The relationship between Iyer and Sachiko was a main point of confusion for me. Iyer is obviously highly educated and incredibly eloquent and I often wondered at the nature of he and Sachiko’s relationship. How did he not get frustrated with her girlishness? How did he not get frustrated with their limited ability to converse? Were they just friends, or lovers too? I found some sentences that I thought could be taken as allusions to them having sex, but my suspicions were never confirmed. I almost feel like their relationship is one of parent and child, but at the same time they are friends and other times they share very intimate moments. He introduces to her to many things about Western society, and she, mostly unknowingly, introduces him to things about Japan, but the conclusions about Japanese society are all his own, not hers at all.

Partway through Iyer’s stay in Kyoto, Sachiko decides she wants to change her life drastically and I felt that Iyer was the main disrupting force, although he never blatantly acknowledges it. I wonder if he felt bad? He completely changed the course of her family’s life: she divorces her husband who we know nothing about, and she takes on a goal of becoming an international tour guide, which also surely affects her relationship with her two young children. I wondered: What about the children and the husband? Iyer doesn’t acknowledge this much.

The Lady and the Monk was especially interesting to me because I’ve spent a good portion of my life studying Japan and Japanese language (almost 15 years). Along with language study, I’ve taken a number of Japanese literature classes and read many of the works Iyer touches on in his book like The Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillowbook and The Tale of the Heike. After reading The Lady and the Monk, I feel I’ve gained new perspective on classical Japanese literature and I see these pieces with what feels like fresh eyes. If I were teaching a Japanese literature course, I would have my students read The Lady and the Monk as part of the course, preferably before reading the great volumes of Japanese literature. For anyone interested, The Lady and the Monk, along with classical Japanese works by Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, along with contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami, would be a great collection and series to read to gain a broad understanding of the Japanese psyche, which in some ways has not changed much from 1,000 years ago.

The Lady and the Monk makes me realize how painfully little I actually understand about Japanese society, which is sort of shocking considering I’ve spent the majority of my life studying the language and the culture. In school, we learned about the culture like tea ceremonies, but not about any of the true nuances of Japan, which probably can’t be understood unless one lives there. I’ve been thinking about living in Japan myself (maybe next year?), but this book makes me wonder if I would actually have a good time there, or if I would simply leave frustrated by the challenge of never being able to truly permeate the Japanese shell that exists in so many aspects of life and work.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Iyer leaves Japan for Taiwan and Bangkok. I like his descriptions of the assault to his senses after he is been in the clean, sanitized and hard Japan for so long. It was almost the feeling I had (but in reverse) when after 5 months in Nepal, I flew into the Singapore airport. The shine, the sparkle, the glinting taxis, the lack of overpowering smells: it was a wonder.

Having finished this book, I feel like I’m now craving to truly know more about the Japan that exists behind the hard surface.

PHOTOS: Dasain Happenings in Kathmandu

This week rang in Dasain, the biggest and most widely celebrated festival in Nepal.  When I was living here three years ago I left right before Dasain started, so I am now seeing things with completely new eyes.  Most Nepalis have an extended holiday from school and work for Dasain.  For example, I have a ten day holiday from work and my neighbor’s children have a two week holiday from school (which has resulted in a constant stream of banter and fighting between the two kids next door).  My Nepali friends had told me that everything shuts down for Dasain and that Kathmandu completely clears out because a large percentage of the people who live in Kathmandu are not actually from here, but are from villages outside the Valley.  Dasain, like American Christmas and Thanksgiving, is a time to get together with family, feast, pray and give offerings to a huge number of gods who I cannot keep straight.  Because Dasain is a time for everyone to be with family, many people leave Kathmandu to return to their home villages.  This has resulted in a startlingly quiet Kathmandu which I am enjoying immensely.  For example, I went for a long walk around the city yesterday and could actually walk straight the entire time without having to dodge anyone or anything.  It was glorious.

Kathmandu is not quite a “ghost town” right now, but compared to its normal, bustling self, the city is totally different.  As I mentioned, sidewalks are clear, streets are clear and stores are closed.  The shops that remain open are mostly run by Indians or are butcher shops.  The butcher shops are busier than normal because Dasain is a time for feasting on meat, lots and lots of meat.  When I do see people walking on the streets, they are often leading goats around on string or ropes, as we in the U.S. might lead our dogs around by a leash.  The only difference is these goats are doomed for slaughter and will likely be transformed into a delicious, spiced dish later in the day.

Butcher shops are open and brimming with meat, often with ten live goats tied out front for later slaughter.  Besides a time for feasting on meat, Dasain is also the main time in Nepal for animal sacrifice.  There are literally tens of thousands of animals sacrificed on any given day of Dasain.  I was hoping to infiltrate a buffalo sacrifice yesterday, but it is difficult for foreigners to get into these sacred rituals.  I did manage to see a duck sacrifice at one temple, though.  At the Hindu temples there are goat, buffalo, chicken and goat sacrifies to the gods.  There is even one temple in the Terai region in the southern town of Janakpur that completes 20,000 buffalo sacrifices throughout the festival.  The grounds of Janakpur are reportedly sticky with blood after Dasain is finished.  After the animal is sacrificed (this is done by slitting the throat) the family that bought the animal cleans it, butchers it and then feasts on it, leaving very little of the animal to waste. Although many Nepalese families continue to do animal sacrifices every year during Dasain, there are a number that prefer to “sacrifice” pumpkins or coconuts to the gods, instead of slitting the throat of a goat or buffalo.

Yesterday I celebrated Dasain with the family of a friend and got a great taste of what the celebration is really about.  Before I met up with Ravi and Ratika (my hosts for the day) I went on a photography mission around Kathmandu to try to capture the happenings and differences that Dasain has brought to the city. Here’s what I got:

Above: As I mentioned in a previous post, Kathmandu has become speckled with these stages featuring slightly scary statues of the multi-handed goddess Durga, a demon and a lion. Here is one particularly large stage and scene close to my house. The women are giving offerings and money to the gods.

Above: A man tends to another one of the Durga statue scenes near the bridge that connects Kathmandu and Lalitpur.

Above: A close-up of the demon who is trying to slay goddess Durga. Take note of the realistic nipple and armpit hair. Frightening.

Above: This picture is unremarkable except for one thing: there are almost NO cars of motorbikes on it. I have been completely in awe at how quickly Kathmandu cleared out for Dasain. Compared to its normal self, it almost feels like a ghost town. This particular road is usually clogged with all sorts of vehicles.


Above: Sundhara, which is normally one of the busiest bus parks in the city, has transformed into a fowl purchase and slaughter center. Here, a couple on a motorbike picks out a few live ducks to take home.

Above: A man walks around Sundhara trying to sell ducks to customers on motorbikes during Dasain.

Above: Where tuk-tuks usually line the streets, there are now metal and wicker baskets stuffed with chickens for the taking.

Above: A few Dasain customers inspect a live duck at Sundhara bus park on Saturday.

Above: Normally where there are hordes of tuk-tuks and mini-buses, there are now lines of chicken cages. The handy location makes it easy for motorbikers to stop quickly to pick up their fowl.

Above: A cage of doomed chickens. But, they will surely makes some tasty Dasain morsels soon enough.

Above: The Sundhara bus park has turned into a makeshift slaughter house for Dasain. You can stop here, pick out your chicken or duck and also have it slaughtered on location (on the side of the road).

Above: At one of the makeshift slaughter houses on the side of the road, a woman dips a recently killed chicken into a tin of boiling water.

Above: A man then dips the dead, boiled and plucked bird into another vat of hot water.

Above: Where once tuk-tuks packed Sundhara to the gills, there are now tiny makeshift slaughter stations where Dasain customers can have their chickens and geese killed.

Above: Hindu devotees wait in line to enter one of the many Kathmandu temples on the first Saturday of Dasain.

Above: For Dasain people leave offerings of food, rice grains and tikka powder outside their front doors.

Above: Another offering outside someone’s front doorstep for Dasain.

Above: Saturday was the day of Dasain that Nepalis did pujas and gave offerings to their machinery, including their cars and motorbikes. The private cars, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws around town were laden with garlands of marigolds, auspicious scraps of cloth and sprinkled with tikka powder. Here, a woman and her husband give offerings to their motorbike. (Notice the marigold garlands around the handlebars).

Above: A taxi with a garland of marigolds around its license plate. If pujas are done to the vehicles on this particular day, it is said that the vehicle will serve the owner well for another year (and no accidents to boot).

Above: An offering plate that will be given to a vehicle.

BLOG: Week 11 Updates

The monsoon rains stopped just as abruptly as they would begin several weeks ago and since then, the weather has become rather agreeable and pleasant. It seemed as though Kathmandu was in a perpetual state of sog and then all of the sudden, it was over.

Doomed for Dasain.

At the moment there is much excitement in the air as Dasain, one of the largest festivals in Nepal, is right around the corner. Dasain is like an extended, two week Christmas for Nepalis. It is a time for getting together with family, praying, giving offerings and gifts to the gods and to relatives. It also, of course, means two weeks of intense feasting. (There has been much news reportage lately about the exponential increase in meat demand. Nepali people drastically increase their meat intake during Dasain, so the butcher shops have been especially inundated lately with extra goats.) Dasain, like Christmas, is a holiday that the locals look forward to all year and meticulously prepare for with the same type of fervor that would inspire us in the U.S. to start buying Christmas presents in July. Over the past few weeks, the market centers, like Asan Bazaar, have become increasingly packed with people buying new clothes, shoes, house decorations and everything in between. Walking through the bazaars during this Dasain madness is quite a task. I feel like I’ve become stuck inside some surreal, writhing mass of humanity who are quickly snapping up gawdy Chinese stilettos crusted with plastic rhinestones and t-shirts covered with non-sensical English phrases (“Adults only party!”).

When I was in Nepal three years ago I left right before Dasain, which falls in mid-October, so I am now seeing festivals and bits of the culture that are totally new to me. During my walks in Kathmandu lately, I’ve noticed a plethora of these massive stages, dripping with colored lights and velvet drapes, on top of which are installed statues and figurines of Hindu gods acting out certain scenes, which are often quite frightening. For example, across from my favorite vegetable vendor is a stage featuring a scene which looks as though a man is about to capture and murder some multi-handed goddess. They are perpetually stuck there, in all their tacky splendor. From behind the stages blasts stereotypical, twangy Hindi music and placed prominently in the center of the stage, in front of the statues are cash collection boxes. I asked my Nepali friends about these stages and they told me the sole point is “to make money.” I often stop and admire the frighteningly statues of gods leaping with spears and tigers stuck in mid-roar. Many of the statues of human figures even come equipped with life-like arm pit and nipple hair attached.

Looking forward to lots of these kinds of meals on Dasain. Photo by: .:RMT:.

Dasain officially starts in three days and I’m looking forward to seeing the city during the festival. Since Dasain is a time to be with family and a good portion of Kathmandu residents are actually not from Kathmandu, but from villages outside the Valley, many people leave the city for their home villages. I’ve been told that this results in a very quiet and peaceful Kathmandu for two weeks. A bit of quiet during my Dasain vacation from work will be a nice respite from the city’s normal chaos. Many of the shops and restaurants will also be closed and one friend even described Kathmandu during Dasain as “a ghost town.” I’m under the impression that to really understand the festivities of Dasain, one must attach oneself to a family because that’s where all the action happens during the festival: in the home. I’ve been invited by three families to celebrate Dasain on separate days, so I look forward to the feasts, the family and the fun. I’ll spend a few of the holidays with my neighbor, Gita, and her relatives. When I mentioned that I might leave Kathmandu for Dasain break to see the tea plantations of Ilam in the east, she said I absolutely could not because then I wouldn’t get to spend time with her family, several of whom are flying in from the U.K. and Australia for the occasion. She jokingly (I think) said that if I dared leave and not celebrate with her family she would punish me with a beating. I laughed but did a double-take at her to make sure it was in jest. I will also be spending one day with my colleague Sachin and his family, and then another day with a Nepali freelance writer friend, Ravi, whom I often edit stories for.

Besides the general Dasain madness that has taken over Kathmandu, the third floor of my apartment building (the floor on which I live) has lately been taken over by sickness and other afflictions. I began the whole hospital madness a few weeks ago when I came down with a horrible case of food poisoning. The incident came exactly two days after I was bragging to a friend that I’ve never had food poisoning while abroad. I lethargically laid in my room, as close as possible to the bathroom, for two days, not eating or drinking anything. Finally, I told my neighbor Gita that I had to go to the hospital for treatment. She insisted that she come too and after many attempts at convincing her I would be fine alone, I finally relented and she came along with me. I think my trip to the hospital was more of a fun social outing for her than it was for me. After waiting an hour for her, she emerged from her side of the hall wearing her one Western-ish outfit: a cotton kurta shirt and jeans, an outfit that I had only seen her wear once before, as she normally wears traditional saris. She also had done herself up in full makeup and I smelled the strong odor of perfume, which had the tendency to make my stomach knot up even more when I caught a whiff. We were quite the sight, I think: me, looking pale and sickly, and her, exuberant about the opportunity to leave the house and take me somewhere, no matter what the circumstances. She was practically prancing down the street to the tuk-tuk stop as I sluggishly dragged myself behind her. Gita smiled and laughed the whole excruciating tuk-tuk ride to the hospital, joking with me while I made pitiful attempts to smile as I held my stomach.

“To the hospital!” she said with a laugh as she hung out the back of the tuk-tuk, while I huddled in between two old men wearing topis. She was excited as I might be to see a play or go out to a fancy dinner.

At the hospital, I think she was rather disappointed at my lack of serious treatment. After we left she linked her arms with mine and we walked (well, she pranced, I dragged) home in the warm Kathmandu evening. Although her presence was not needed and was a bit bubbly, I was happy to have her accompany me. I got a different glimpse of her on this hospital trip, one where she was completely untethered from her domestic duties to her children and husband. Her role as a wife and mother is one that she fills almost 24/7, so although a hospital trip was no fun for me, I can see why she enjoyed it: it was a chance for her to fill another role. For an evening, she was a woman out on the town with a friend, laughing, joking and chatting (and getting prescriptions for Ciprofloaxin antibiotics and rehydration salts). We chatted as we walked home, arm in arm, and I thanked her for all her help.

“I your guardian,” she said with a laugh. I also saw that she relished the chance at channeling her motherly instincts beyond her two children, to me as well.

After I fell ill, both Gita’s children also became sick with some kind of fever. Both are better now, but Gita’s husband had to carry their son, who they never call by name, only “Babu” (little boy), to the hospital. Then Gita fell ill for several days, stuck inside her house with the fever. I took over some of her cleaning duties in the mean time, spending a good portion of last Saturday morning cleaning our shared bathroom. By the end of the several hour cleaning spree, I began to resent how many tiles we have in our bathroom, but also began to appreciate Gita more for how much she actually cleans.

The next to be afflicted with a hospital visit was Gita’s husband. I came home last night to find that he had fallen from a ladder while trying to fix something (she said “electrical wires”…?) and had broken his left hand and received 8 stitches on his face.  Now that we’ve all fallen sick, I can only hope that this spell will soon be over for good.

In other news, I’ve developed tendonitis in my foot and have been ordered to stop running for 6 weeks. This news has motivated me to buy a bicycle, which could be the best or worst idea I’ve yet had in Kathmandu. I bought my new bicycle this afternoon for less than $100 and have relished the new freedoms I’ve found through my wheels. My next investment will surely be a face mask and a helmet.

The Smells of Kathmandu

There is little else that has the intense power to incite such simultaneous delight and revulsion in the nasal cavity than a walk through the streets of Kathmandu. On my daily walks through the alleys and lanes of the city, I often think that for a reader who has never been here to fully comprehend the sensory experiences of Kathmandu, a scratch-and-sniff is necessary to accompany an article or a photograph. The smells, which can be both tantalizing and horrendous, that bombard the nose are so plentiful and ever-changing that a short one-hour city walk could be considered the equivalent to taking the nose on a wild up and down theme park roller coaster.
A full day’s walk around Kathmandu could probably lead to a whole book’s worth of descriptions. Instead of describing all the varied aromas from a day, I shall use my walk this morning as a small case study on the phenomenal range of nose stimuli that can be experienced within an hour’s time. This morning I walked from my house in Sanepa to the tourist district of Thamel, a walk through the heart of the city that takes almost exactly one hour.
I leave my house at 9:30 just as Gita, my neighbor, was beginning the laborious daily task of washing the dishes her children’s clothes. She crouches at the water spigot that we share, scrubbing at the kids’ school uniforms with a bar of cheap, green soap that smells of ayurvedic shops and Chinatown. I wave goodbye and she gives me her customary goodbye greeting: “Enjoy today!”
Strolling down the narrow lanes, dodging taxis and private cars that whiz uncomfortably close to me, I pass the small neighborhood butcher shop. A goat was tied to a stake with a rope, chewing blades of grass and looking as though he were overcome with melancholy. His former compatriot lay severed in three pieces on the butcher’s table, hooves jutting into the air. The butcher shop smells permanently of flesh, a kind of earthy smell that is neither pleasing nor appalling. It is the bloody aroma of death that so many butcher shops in the city smell like. I walk by, smiling and waving at the butcher, while feeling sorry for the sad looking goat that will soon meet the same demise as his disconnected friend.
Just around the bend from the butcher is my favorite shop on the street to pass by: the spice grinder. A middle-aged man dressed in ratty t-shirts is perpetually sitting on a stool in front of an ancient-looking spice grinder, pouring in burlap sacks of cumin, turmeric, coriander and mustard seed. On turmeric days, his shirt, hands and face are tinted orange from the clouds of ground spice that escape that metal tubes. Today, he is grinding cumin. When I pass by the spice grinder, I often want to stop and fill my nostrils and lungs with the spice molecules that billow out from the man’s powdery burlap sacks.
I continue on, trying to inhale every last molecule of the spice grinder’s shop because I know the horrors that will meet my nose soon enough. On my way out of Sanepa (my neighborhood), I am blasted with the gritty exhaust of school buses that surely don’t meet the emissions standards anywhere, despite displaying a sticker on their windows that say they do. According to friends in the know, it’s easy for vehicles in Kathmandu to pass the required emissions tests: a few hundred rupees of baksheesh (bribe) will do the trick.
Now, it is on to Pulchowk, the main road that connects the city of Patan, or Lalitpur, with Kathmandu. On the main streets, the smells change almost every ten feet. I walk by a man selling sliced fruit covered with a red netting, which seems to be mostly ceremonious, as flies are feasting on the sweet fruit anyway. He is chopping orange guava, which smells like an over-ripe tropical vacation.
Down the street, in front of a construction site, idle men crouch on the curb and smoke cheap Nepali cigarettes while the sari-clad women continue to mix cement and move bricks from one spot to another. I try not to breathe in the spirals of cigarette smoke, as I consider how emblematic this construction site is of what I’ve seen in much of Nepal: inert men, often smoking and drinking, and busy women, earning money that probably funds their husband’s habits.

I continue on and pass by a street-side tea stall, which is centered around a metal pot that brims with boiling milk, black tea leaves and copious amounts of sugar. The steam from the tea smells rich and creamy like the beverage that will fill the small glass cups of the shop’s patrons.

Ten minutes on Pulchowk and I’m at the bridge that connects Lalitpur to Kathmandu and crosses over the Nepal’s sacred river, the Bagmati. The sacred river, which is meant to wash away sins if bathed in, doubles as a sewer, an easy place to dispose of trash, a car wash, a toilet and a place to do laundry. The areas that line the Bagmati are crowded with squatter’s residences, or slums. The massive rural-urban migration in the past decade has meant an explosion in squatters living by the river who have inadequate access to clean water or medicine. I recently read that a resident in the squatter communities in Kathmandu dies every ten to fifteen days, most likely a woman or a child.
The stink of the Bagmati is oppressive. But when crossing the bridge that spans the river, it is hard for me not to stop in the middle and look out at the mess. It is like a horrible car crash: it’s hard not to look when passing by. Today, a man walks through the middle of the river with a large sack slung across his back. He picks up bits of plastic and empty bottles that were floating down the river. The rotten smell of the river left my mind for a moment as I considered the situation he must be in to actually take it upon himself to forage for plastic in this river. To a visitor, it would be a surprise to learn that the Bagmati is a holy river, for the banks and small islands that dot it are piled high with decomposing trash heaps. Off to one side of the river, bloated and greyish, is a carcass of something. I ask two teenage boys if it is a pig.
“It’s a cow,” they inform me.

Cows walk across the Bagmati.


On the other side of the river, near a squatter’s colony, a man crouches with his feet submerged in the water, shitting in the flowing, brown waters.
I cross to the other side of the bridge and continue on to my destination.
Where the bridge connects to the main streets in Kathmandu are a number of women who bring woks and kerosene to the pavement and set up snack vending stations right on the sidewalk. I walk by and inhale the fumes of greasy, fried snacks, a welcome change from the putrid Bagmati. The plumes drifting off the bubbling oil smell tantalizingly unhealthy.
I walk past the street-side barbers who sit on worn stools next to mounds of snipped black hair on the sidewalk. Punctuating the exhaust fumes are the cloying smells of Indian sweet shops, which vend small, but deceptively rich treats with names like barfi and gulab jamun. Many of the shops, whose glass windows protect pyramids of snacks, are run by sullen-looking Bengalis with dark brown skin. The smell of baking sweets and hot ghee (clarified butter) are so enticing that every time I pass one, I feel a magnetic pull to enter and gorge on the sugary desserts.

Indian Sweets


Five minutes down the street, I pass a small temple, tucked between a greasy auto-repair shop and a veterinary medicine shop. An old woman, who looks about two centuries old, sits in front of the shop with her hand outstretched, begging for money. From the bronze hulk of the temple comes a sweet and smoky fog of incense, sticks of which are lit constantly for the gods.
Now I am at the point where I must cross a main street that flows with a never-ending pulse of traffic. I make use of my usual strategy when crossing major streets in Asia: latch on to a local and follow them across. Once safely to the other side, I pass by a momo shop: the ubiquitous Tibetan dumplings stuffed with chicken, vegetables or buffalo that can be found all over Kathmandu. A young restaurant attendant lifts the lid off an aluminum momo steamer and a cloud of spicy, meaty vapors reaches my nose. He plucks out ten and places them on a dented aluminum plate to accompany a tin of red achar (pickle). The doughy momos smell better than the most expensive perfume ever could, especially because the stench of the river still lingers in my nose.
I pass street vendors who are making popcorn. They make me remember the comforts of the Western movie theater. Then I walk by Ratna Park, the main bus central in the middle of the city, where someone has recently installed a “Mobile Toilet.” The Mobile Toilet is housed in the shell of a large truck and smells like the innards of a campground outhouse. Nepali women who walk by demurely raise a fold of their sari to cover their nose. I have no nose covering, so just try to hold my breath as long as possible.
There is a stretch of sidewalk that spans the distance between Ratna Park and Asan Bazaar that I cringe even thinking about. Even in the mid-morning, this particular piece of my walk is bathed in sun. I usually enjoy walking in the sun, but the rays produce an especially heinous effect here. For some reason, this piece of sidewalk is speckled with mounds of feces, probably mostly from stray dogs. During the night, this piece of sidewalk must also get a thorough bath of urine from dogs and humans. The warmth of the sun bakes the mounds of shit and heats the urine, which releases a distinctive and shockingly foul smell. Even the Bagmati smells like flowers compared to this stretch of sidewalk. I walk as quickly as I can, being careful to avoid the smears of feces on the ground. The suffocating smell of hot urine is so difficult to endure that I consider wearing a gas mask next time I pass by. This piece of sidewalk makes me feel like retching, even passing out. I hold my breath as long as I can, but when I start to feel dizzy, I am forced to take a deep breath. The acidic, acrid stench burns my lungs.
Thankfully, I reach the end of the rancid stretch of sidewalk and my nose is soon appeased by a another fried-snack shop. A man stands in front, pouring viscous dough into hot oil, which produces a delicious, warm fragrance that reminds me of fresh baked cookies. I stop for a minute and watch as the sweet maker curls the watery dough in a circular motion, which will eventually produce the saccharine-sweet jalebi snacks.
I pass the street that leads to Asan Bazaar and hop over some stagnant mud puddles. The next ten minutes are aromatically uneventful, just some repeat smells: fried snacks, Indian sweet shops, steaming momos and the occasional whiff of sewage. Finally, I arrive in the backpacker district of Thamel. Almost immediately upon my arrival to the neighborhood, I start hearing the sounds of chanting monks that blast of the speakers of music shops. They are the same CDs on repeat that have been playing for at least three years, since I was last in Kathmandu.
Immediately the smell of incense floods the streets. There is sandalwood, and nag champa drifting from the storefronts of shops selling fake North Face gear, bootleg movies and used books.
“Taxi, Madame?”
“You want trekking, rafting?”
“Tiger balm?”
All the usual suspects crowd the street corners, trying to sell their services or products.
Finally, I get to my destination, the Northfield Cafe. I order a black coffee and a waiter wearing a collared shirt promptly brings it to me, setting it next to my open computer.

And then, as if to cleanse my nose of the delights and horrors it has smelled in the past hour, comes the welcome aroma of freshly brewed coffee. In just an hour I’ve marveled at the smells of fresh ground spices, frying snacks, incense, momos and milk tea. On the flip side, I’ve wanted to douse my nostrils in the sterilizer after passing the Bagmati, baking urine, feces and sewage. After the last sixty minutes, the warm, comforting aroma of plain black coffee could not be more welcome.

Taking Pictures of People: How to Get the Perfect Shot

Let’s say you’re strolling through a crowded market nestled deep in the heart of Old Kathmandu. The buildings are crammed and crumbling, giving the area a weathered, medieval look. There are vegetable vendors lining the streets. They’re sitting on ragged tarps covered with a landscape of vegetables stacked in pyramids. There are red tomatoes, yellow lemons, some green bumpy vegetable that you don’t know the name of, dark purple eggplant and heaps of green chillies. Out of the corner of your eye, leaning against an ancient-looking door frame is an equally as ancient-looking woman. The lines and wrinkles on her face probably hold more stories than an entire library. From her ears drip traditional gold jewelery. In her hand she holds a beedi cigarette, which she takes long pulls of every minute. The woman is perfectly framed within the rectangular door setting. “This looks like a National Geographic shot!” you think. You grab for your camera, but hesitate for a second. “Should I take a picture? Would it be rude? Should I ask? The shot would be so amazing, though!” And in that few seconds of apprehension, the woman and the possibility of a photo have vanished.

Some version of this scenario has happened to me many times. I’ll see someone that I really want to take a photo of and then in the minutes of mulling it over, the person will move or disappear. I usually carry my camera everywhere and have taken thousands of photos on my travels through Asia over the last three years. Looking back through my photo library, out of thousands, I can probably pick 100 really, really good ones. Out of those 100, probably 80% are of people. I’m a strong believer that people make the best photo subjects. Obviously Mt. Everest is one of the most majestic spots on earth, but are you really going to capture its essence and beauty in a photograph. Probably not. Forests and lakes are spectacular sites to visit, but, honestly, landscape photos can get boring quickly. After some time, a lake is just a lake. A mountain range will always look dwarfed and less amazing than it did in person.

But people never get boring. It is the people who live in a place that bring the whole scene to life. When I travel I like to see what the people are doing. I want to see how they live their lives, what they do everyday, how they spend their mornings, what they eat, where they work, who their children are, what they wear and what they do for fun. Ultimately, I want to see how other people’s lives around the world differ from my own in the United States. After we strip away the religion, the food choices, the morals and ethics, the language and the education, we’re all the same: just people. I think that is why people photos are so interesting: because when we see someone else’s eyes and face, we can inherintily relate to them, no matter if they are the nomads of Tibet, the city slickers of Seoul, the coffee-shop owners of Singapore or the cowgirls of the American West. Take a look at some of the most successful travel photographers like Steve McCurry. Almost every single one of his famous photos is of a person. Perhaps his most famous photo, the one of the Afghan girl staring out of frame with hauntingly green eyes, is noteworthy for many reasons, but mainly, we can relate to her through her eyes.

Although pictures of people are probably the most interesting and beautiful mementos from travel, they are also the most difficult to take. I often think about what it would be like if I were on the other side of the camera, the subject of the photos rather than the photographer. I would absolutely NOT appreciate having my picture snapped as I went about my daily life, eating breakfast and going to work. So, how can you get good photos of people without being intrusive, rude or imposing? It is a fine art that I am learning slowly but surely. Practice makes it slighly easier, but I still have an awkward feeling whenever I am trying to get a close-up photo of a person’s face. Here are some thing’s I’ve learned in my practice and study of photography that will help when trying to get good photos of people:

1)Ask

This can be difficult, especially when there is a language barrier, but it is the most surefire way that you won’t upset your proposed photo subject. If you don’t know how to ask, or the person doesn’t understand your question, just point at your camera and point at them? They’ll probably understand that you want to take a picture and respond accordingly.

2) Offer Money, When Appropriate

I think if you are going to take a picture of someone, it is sometimes fair that you pay a bit of money to them. I usually never pay anyone in the city, but if I am trekking or in the countryside and see someone I want to photograph, I’ll take their picture and then give them whatever small change I have in my bag. Sometimes the person will straight away ask for money, but if not, it’s a nice gesture.

3) Learn How to Say “Can I Take Your Picture” in the Local Language

I asked my Nepali photographer friend how to say: “Can I take your picture?” in Nepalese. Learning this phrase in the local language can be helpful.  When you whip out the phrase in the local language, your potential photo subject may be more willing to agree if they feel that you have made an effort to learn a bit of their culture and language.

4) Read Body Language – if they look awkward, put the camera away

If you take your camera out and your proposed photo subject shrugs away, or starts looking awkward, just put the camera back and don’t take photos. Taking pictures of people, if they don’t agree to it, can be very rude and insensitive.

5) Be Sensitive and Don’t Encroach

There are certain situations that, no matter how photogenic they may be, you probably shouldn’t take a picture of. For example, a woman breastfeeding a child or an intimate moment between two people. I also think it is also necessary to be exceedingly sensitive when taking pictures of poor people or beggars.  I say do NOT take pictures of poor, destitute people just for fun (unless you are going to give them money).  If you are a photojournalist or another sort of professional photographer and you are taking these pictures for some assignment or larger purpose, then it can be alright.


Above: Aashish, one of the young monks at Trungram Monastery in Nepal.

Above: A group of Cambodian kids in the village outside of Battambang.


Above: Thuli Tamang, a 72-year-old woman carries grass to her village.

Above: The busy scenes at the vegetable market in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Above: The monks at Trungram Monastery in Sankhu, Nepal.

Above: Nepali school girls walking to morning classes in Pokhara.

Above: A farmer outside of Pokhara takes a tea break.

Above: Two farmer girls rest at their home outside Pokhara, Nepal.

Above: Two inquisitive girls from a small village in Nepal.

Above: Sadhus, the Hindu holy men, hang out and smoke ganja at Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal.


Above: A vegetable peddler on the streets of Kathmandu.

Above: Farmers harvest rice in Phimai in Northeastern Thailand.

Above: Two Akha women on the trail deep in the jungles of Northern Laos.

Above: A toothy child smiles beneath a big red tikka.

Above: A beggar asks for rupees as the Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

Bibimbap: Food of the Gods

Stone Pot Bibimbap (Photo by avlxyz-flickr)

Throughout my Asian travels I often find a food or drink in a certain country that I absolutely cannot get enough of. In Thailand I ate enough spicy green papaya salad and young coconuts to feed the US military for a month. In Singapore I drank so much kopi (coffee sweetened with condensed milk) that I often returned home so caffeinated that I could barely read a sentence. In Cambodia I ate so many mini grilled bananas on a stick that I most likely kept the SE Asian banana business afloat while visiting. And, of course, in Vietnam I sometimes begged my travel partners to eat pho with me three times a day.

And then came Korea. Before moving to Kathmandu I toured South Korea, from Seoul to Busan. I had eaten Korea food several times before, but it was when I visited the country that I truly began to understand the glory, the textures, the freshness and the flavors that is Korean food. Within 24 hours of my arrival I re-discovered bibimbap (perhaps one of the most popular foods in Korea) and that’s when my obsessive tendencies kicked in. Over the course of the next few weeks bibimbap became my go-to food. Korea is bursting with delicious and fresh food, so of course I tried countless other dishes, but bibimbap was always there to save me when I wanted a dish that was guaranteed to be scrumptious.

Me, documenting the delicious glory of bibimbap in Seoraksan National Park. (Photo by Jane Tucker)

The word “bibimbap” means “mixed rice” in Korea. The dish consists of a bed of white rice topped with a variety of vegetables, a fried egg, sometimes meat and always the ubiquitous spicy red hot sauce found everywhere in Korea. The dish is served in a large bowl with the toppings neatly placed in separate piles on top of the rice. After being served, the diner adds hot sauce to taste and mixes the bowl’s contents with a spoon until everything is uniformly incorporated.

An alternative to regular bibimbap is “dolsot bibimbap.” Dolsot bibimbap contains the same ingredients as the normal dish, it is simply served in a hot clay pot instead of a regular bowl. I was slightly more fond of dolsot bibimbap, mostly because of the novelty factor of the sizzling hot bowl that makes everything a bit crisper during the mixing process and keeps the whole thing warm for longer.

Popular bibimbap toppings include a fried egg (with the yolk still runny), shredded carrot, shitake mushroom, cooked spinach, sesame seeds, a drizzling of sesame oil, zucchini, kosari and other pickled vegetables. The hot pepper paste is sometimes served already on the rice, but usually there is a large squeeze bottle handy with extra. Each unique flavor blends perfectly with the others, creating a spicy, satisfying and healthy bowl of sustenance. As I found true almost everywhere in Korea, along with the main dish is served a smattering of small side dishes, which include kimchi (fermented cabbage), marinated tofu, seaweed, daikon radish and other pickled delights.

For those lucky enough to have a well-stocked kitchen and a Asian market nearby, here is a recipe and instructional video I found for bibimbap.

Some bibimbap pictures for your viewing pleasure.



Above: My Korean travel partner and best friend Jane spices up her bibimbap with extra hot sauce in Seoraksan National Park.

Above: One of the pleasures of eating Korean food are the numerous little side dishes served with the main course.

Above: This is dolsot bibimbap, which is basically the same as regular bibimbap, but is served in a hot clay pot.

Above: This bibimbap is served with a side of kimchi and broth. (Photo by: avlxyz)

This Week’s Travel Favorites

I spend a lot of time reading, thinking, writing and pondering about travel.  You could say it’s a wee bit of an obsession.  Luckily, my wanderlust is very satisfactorily satiated at my jobs (I work as a magazine writer and television show producer and host here in Kathmandu, Nepal).  I’ve decided to start blogging about and paying hommage to travel “favorites” each week.  These “favorites could be anything from a travel personality, to a travel related book, or travel gear that has given me recent inspiration.

Here is this week’s round up of Travel Favorites:

Travel With Rick Steves Podcasts

When I was at home in Portland, Oregon, packing for Kathmandu, I wavered on whether or not to bring my iPhone.  I decided to throw it in my bag if for nothing else, just to use as a music player.  I am SO happy that I decided to bring it.  Once I arrived in Kathmandu, a friend swiftly “unlocked” it for $10 and now I can use a local SIM card.  I started to peruse the selection of podcasts on my iTunes and stumbled upon the Travel With Rick Steves selection.  I downloaded about 100 episodes and have been exceedingly pleased with the quality material I’ve been listening to every day.

Rick Steves is a famous travel guidebook writer who especially focuses on Europe.  I’ve never read his guidebooks, but his podcasts are excellent.  He conducts a wonderful interview that always leaves me feeling inspired to boldly continue on with my world travels.  Steves’ guests are well-chosen and eloquent.  As a traveler, I value the information and perspective I’ve found in the podcasts and as a writer, I’m always interested in his interview style and the questions he asks.  Travel With Rick Steves is the perfect show to tune in to when going on a long walk, sitting at home or on an airplane.

EatingAsia Food Blog

Pho Ingredients (Photo by katclay-flickr)

I literally salivate over this fantastic Asia food and photography blog created by photographer David Hagerman and food writer Robyn Eckhardt.  The writing is concise and to the point and makes you feel as though you are sitting next to David and Robyn as they sip teas in Turkey or eat grilled fish in Luang Prabang, Laos.  EatingAsia is the perfect fusion of travel and food, two things that I think go together marvelously.  Trying new foods and local cuisines when traveling is, I think, one of the greatest pleasures of being on the road.  I’m guessing David and Robyn of EatingAsia would agree with me on this one. In addition to the excellent stories and descriptions of their travels, the photos are to die for.  The colors, the textures and the perfect composition makes me want to follow David Hagerman around and just watch him at work.  Those lucky enough to live in or travel through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, actually can do this because David offers food photography walks through the city. (You can follow Robyn Eckhardt on Twitter: @EatingAsia)

Keen Shoes

I would like to personally thank Keen for their excellent quality and versatile shoes.  I bought a pair of Keens three years ago at REI and virtually forgot about then since I returned from my one year Asia trip.  When pairing down my clothes for my current trip,  I rediscovered my old Keens at the bottom of a cardboard box.  I brought them along with me on this trip and recommend them to everyone.  They are not the exact model pictured here (because I bought mine three years ago), but they are similar.  The shoes are black and slip-on with a velcro strap across the top.  They are versatile enough to be worn with nice clothes to work, but can also be work on hikes. The shoes stood up to the test of hiking in rural Nepal in the monsoon this past weekend.  I was on an assignment in Balthali village, which is about 30 kilometers outside of Kathmandu, just beyond the valley rim.  Part of my assignment was to investigate some of the hikes in the area.  The only shoes I brought were my Keens and they gave an A+ performance up muddy, monsoon ruined hills, down slippery rocks, through rivers and across rice paddies.  I returned to the lodge I was staying at with no blisters and perhaps most surprising, with completely dry feet.

You Know You’ve Backpacked S.E. Asia When…

You know you’ve backpacked Southeast Asia when…

1) A large percentage or your grungy travel shirts are emblazoned with local beer logos, including this one:

2) You’ve drank a cocktail or two out of what normally would be considered a child’s beach toy:

Sangsom Whiskey Buckets (photo by Kullez-flickr)

3) You know that the term “Yellow Bible” has nothing to do with religion:

Lonely Planet's "Yellow Bible": the holy grail of SE Asia travel books.

4) You have a scar or two on your body from intertubing in Vang Vieng, Laos:

Zip line on the Nam Song River in Laos (Photo by: lanz-flickr)

5) You think street Pad Thai is just about as essential as water:

Street Pad Thai in a wok (Photo by: Charles Hayes-flickr)

6) You don’t think a 17-hour bus ride is particularly long, anything over 30-hours might be pushing it, though:

A bus in Laos (Photo by: joaquinuy-flickr)

7) You’ve grown used to cockroaches and have even snacked on them once or twice:

Cockroach (Photo by: Anil Jadhav-flickr)

8 ) You’ve seen some of the prettiest men ever:

Lady Boy in Patpong, Thailand (Photo by: fitri.agung-flickr)

9) You’ve often found yourself wandering malls just to take advantage of the air conditioning and clean bathrooms:

Mall in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (Photo by: Julien Menichini-flickr)

10) You consider a tuk-tuk ride across town a sufficient alternative to using a hair dryer:

Tuk-Tuk ride in Thailand (Photo by: bfick-flickr)

11) You know it’s not uncommon for there to be three 7-11s within a two block vicinity:

7-11s are everywhere in Thailand. (Photo by: iaminthailand-flickr)

Excellent Reader Suggestions:

Here are some extra hilarious ones via Epic Asia Travel readers. Got some more? Make sure to comment below!

12) You start to believe the hose is better than toilet paper after all (Suggested by Jon):

Asian toilet with hose (Photo by: wonder-flickr)

13) You realize that a scooter can easily carry a family of four whilst the driver texts (Suggested by Jon):

Family on a Bike in SE Asia (Photo by: emilio labrador-flickr)