Monday, March 3, 2014

The Exclusions of All Inclusive Resorts

The gorgeous beaches of Playa Del Carmen
From Cancun to Playa Del Carmen, Mexico's Northern Yucatan Coast is rapidly turning into one huge resort. Some of these expansive decadent getaways for (mostly) Americans and Europeans are what we call "all inclusive" meaning food and (bottom shelf) liquor are included in the price of your stay . You can drink and eat to your heart's content. Hundreds of thousands vacationers flood these resorts every year, ingesting, imbibing, soaking up the sun,  and enjoying the exclusive  private beaches before returning home.

Fair enough, right?

"Playa Del Carmen is dying. The all inclusive resorts are killing it", Diego tells me during our interview with him for our Travelers of the World section at JustaPack.  Acutely intrigued by this statement I met up with him a week or so later to pick his brain.

The "first world" has entered towns like Playa, introducing hard capitalism, and turned what used to be a quiet fishing hamlet into a thrumming throbbing beach town, filled with boutique shops, pricey restaurants, and obnoxious booming nightclubs. The growth has been rapid and is no where near finished. Playa is on it's way to being a premium destination for vacationers. The locals have adapted to this new way of life, and ply all sorts of services to the outsiders. You walk down the main tourist strip and are offered everything from clothes, massages, food, "buy junk you don't need before you leave" (according to one witty salesperson), and drugs. Always ends with the drugs. "I got the party, the real stuff. Marijuana, Coke, X. I got it all." As you can imagine this has led to a sharp increase in violence and theft in the area, as where drug dealers roam thusly roams strife and danger. One example I was given when I interviewed Diego was the sharp increase in bicycle "muggings". You slow down on your bike at an intersection and barely even perceive the danger before you are knocked to the ground, perhaps beaten, and have your bike taken. This happens in local areas as the police patrol tourist sections like hawks.

Locals suffer, we relax and party. Familiar story.  

5th Ave, Playa del Carmen.
Now say you are staying in an all inclusive resort. You might leave the grounds one of the four or five nights you staying and decide you want to actually explore the new location you have found yourself in. You normally are a few kilometers from the main tourist areas, and take a taxi into town. You certainly aren't buying food or liquor, which are probably the top draws of the tourist strip of Playa known as 5th Avenue.  Yeah you might buy some trinkets. Or you go to the brand new Gucci/Levi/Prada/Nike/Forever 21 stores and buy some shit there. The locals feel the crunch. The competition for the left over scraps is fierce. This leads to every local establishment having a tout or two outside, hard selling the goods/services offered. They make eye contact if they can, turn your head with any comment that might grab your attention, and then swoop in in a fashion that most outsiders find disarming at the very least. Since they only get paid if you actually spend some money the sell is desperate and at times bitter in nature.  They aren't selling local culture or handcrafts either, they are selling imported bullshit from China. T-shirts with logos and stupid quotes "I like to fart- Playa Del Carmen" and cheaply manufactured "Mexican" sombreros dominate the sales landscape. 

In Mexico citizens can buy stays at Mexican all inclusive resorts on lay-a-way. Basically you pay the price over the course of a year or two, take a long bus ride from Mexico City and find yourself in a little private piece of heaven, away from the bustle, crime, and pollution that the non elite or non tourist are subjected to in that sprawling urban monstrosity.  Since you have probably been putting most of your vacation money away to pay for the all inclusive resort, you are much less likely to spend any more money out during a trip to the town. The locals of Playa are really bitter about this type of tourist, seeing it as a betrayal from their own kind. The "all inclusive Mexican" tourists are frowned down on more than any other sort in Playa, due to the nature of that bitterness. 

The all inclusive resorts rarely hire locals. They offer unpaid internships to Mexcians from all over the country who have gone to hospitality school, and import them for their knowledge of English and other languages, and for their education. This freezes the locals out almost completely, as many of the best paying jobs are in the hospitality industry that caters to the short term vacationer.  Nor do the locals see any sort of profit sharing from these places. The all inclusive resorts pay a tax (or a bribe, depending on how realistic you want to be about it) to the national government. One would think that by nature of their locations the resorts would give SOMETHING back to the community. Nope. Aside from some infrastructure they barely use the locals get nothing but shit upon. Oh, wait, they DID get a Wal-Mart! Lucky them, huh? Freshly built this gigantic mega store is the all inclusive resort of shopping. It sells everything and features prices that are mostly out of range of the locals. One stop shopping is highly convenient and Wal-Mart, as it's done everywhere it has laid its insidious roots, has  managed to put all sorts of other local owned shops out of business. 

There are talks of building a gigantic shopping center near Playa Del Carmen, called the Dragon Mart. The investors of this project? The Chinese, with some American support. They are paying the government millions of dollars in "taxes" for the right to do so. An estimated 5,000 jobs will be lost and that's not taking into account what it might do to local industry, while 4,000 new jobs will be created. Who gets these new jobs? Think about that for a second.


If you said "the locals" you have not been paying attention. The Dragon Mart will, in all likely hood, be importing Chinese workers.  As Diego put it "we are about to have a Chinatown in Playa." 

The moral here? Our very presence in these beautiful pieces of paradise have a direct influence on the way of life of the original inhabitants. Sometimes we bring a healthy change with us, but mostly we superimpose our way of life in an unhealthy fashion.

Found in Playa Del Carmen.
So, when you come to Playa, or decide you want to visit the horrific Cancun, or Maui, Bali, or Costa Rica, PLEASE try to stay some place other than an all inclusive resort. Try to remember that your very presence has contributed to an insanely rapid and mostly negative change in way of life for it's people, and allow that to humble you. In all honesty you will pay less for your stay if you book a 3 or 4 star hotel, and eat and drink out at local places. Trust me you will still have a great time. The food will be better, the liquor won't be bottom shelf, the cervesas will be just as cold, you will actually experience a new culture and it's fantastic people. Hell you might even meet someone you'd otherwise never be exposed to. Most of all you can proudly know that you did your best not to directly contribute to the suffering of the local population whose home you are calling your vacation play ground.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

First Stop, Cancun

First stop on a year long trip from Mexico to Argentina ... Cancun.

There is much to be said for cheap flights. The shorter the stay somewhere the higher percentage of total budget is spent on the airfare. Even with long trips you almost always want to save as much as you can on the flight in. Common sense, right? When first planning this trip I had a couple of first stop destinations in mind. Cancun, San Jose C.R., Panama City, and Managua Nicaragua were high on the list, followed by a direct flight into Guatemala. I went with the absolute cheapest tickets i could find (that weren't Spirit airlines, because trust me you NEVER want to fly Spirit unless you are going to Florida sans luggage) which is how we ended up in Cancun. For the record i have never had any interest in visiting Cancun, but decided to give it a shot for a couple of days. Because, why not?

Ahhhh, Cancun, bless you for your beautiful strip of beach, and curse you for everything else. Cancun is a bit of what the Vegas strip circa 1995  would look like if it were located on a gorgeous strand of ocean swept white sand. It's cheesy, over priced, tacky, and filled with whiny white people in too small swim attire. Seriously, if you don't fit into your bathing suit do yourself a favor and buy a larger one.

Cancun is known for its Spring Break debauchery but what does it look like when the frat boys and sorority girls are still working hard on their 2.75 GPA's? Well, it looks like a cruise ship tipped over discarded it's passengers into resorts. These are not the world traveling type of vacationers. And there is nothing wrong with that, right? Right? I should stop being so judgmental, everyone needs a break now and then and the beach there was undeniably better than any beach ive visited in the States. However...

The second morning I was having breakfast with Randi in our 4 star hotel on the "zona hoterla"  in Cancun. The Zona is basically a giant strip of luxury accommodations for gringos, all set up along a fore mentioned beach. We stayed there only to get our bearings while spending a couple of days just chilling on the beach. The area has all these giant clubs and stuff,  and it's a huge party zone at night in places.  We didn't go out either night,  as when we briefly explored this area we found it  basically a desperate attempt to appeal to "western sensibilities",  or at least what the locals think we gringos want and enjoy. Gaudy, tacky, dominated by flash and loud noises, guys in The Mask and Spiderman costumes posing for 10 dollar pictures with the vacationing crowd. And guess what? It was packed with gringos acting like they were in an amusement park. Not even the sight of Policia armed to the teeth with heavy automatic weapons deterred this empty revelry.
Anyway, back to breakfast. The two of us, a waiter and a Bro looking dude with his girlfriend. The Bro was loquacious in the American sense of the word and struck up a nonsensical conversation with the waiter. At some point he asks the hotel waiter if he had ever gone swimming with dolphins,  as he and his girl were going to be doing so later that day. My ears immediately perked up and the absurdity of the question. Bro obviously had no idea how much a Mexican waiter in Cancun makes. He probably never stopped to think about it. 100, maybe 200 a WEEK. The waiter laughed nervously in reply and stated the obvious. "No amigo, I can't afford it." The Bro just chuckled,  still oblivious to how inane his question was. The locals working in Cancun slave away to amuse and entice the spring break vacation crowd while the herd remains oblivious.

The difference between me and the Bro? Exposure to the crushing and crippling poverty that capitalism sentences the "developing" world to. The grinding grasping for money infects like a virus,  and measure of worth is judged by the size of a bank account. We spread  this fallacy and turn the quest for money Into a life goal. It's sick and insidious. A cancer upon our psyche.  I wish we lived in a culture that was aware of the rest of the world. But that might lead to empathy for those you step on on your quest for $$$ and we can't be having that huh?

I don't want to make it sound like I am holding myself above people like the aforementioned Bro. I know I Contribute to the suffering of the third world. I,  however,  have been lucky enough to travel and see reality with mine own eyes. I've seen the "poorest"  people laugh and enjoy life. I've seen the richest behave like empty shells of humanity. I have,  I suppose,  perspective. I would not be surprised if I got robbed for flashing my American toys, I know I look like a walking ATM, and I know I am extremely lucky to be a visitor in these lands. I try to remain aware and respectful whenever I can. And I would never ever ask a local if they partake in the luxury of the tourist. It's flat out insulting.

Needless to say,  we left Cancun as quickly as possible, charting a course due south to Playa del Carmen, and hopefully to catch a boat today to Cozumel, a beautiful Island with what I'm told are amazing coral reefs.


(Originally published Sept, 2011)

One of the many things i learned during the months I spent backpacking in South America was how to turn off my brain during long bus journeys. This is essential as bus travel tends to be a unbearably long, incredibly uncomfortable, and at times downright terrifying. I come from a privleged place where the roads are wide and mostly straight, where rules are enforced by cops in mirrored sunglasses and bad attitudes, and where plunging off of a cliff into a deep ravine is generally frowned upon. I once spent ten hours on a bus with no heat on a sub zero night, sans any sort of bathroom, that hit and butchered a goat which shattered the windshield and blew out the back tire and left us standing in the middle of the road for a hour, and which ended with myself and my two Irish mates being unceremoniously evicted onto a freezing early morning dust swept road near the Bolivian border.

I figured I was ready for anything bus related.

India, once again, humbled me shattering that particular illusion during a ten hour trip between monsoon drenched McLeod Ganj and the high hills of Manali.

The bus itself turned out to be a dingy, oily, tin can on wheels. Pretty much par for the course thus far in India. This particular archaic machine lacked power steereing and possessed a set of equistely squelching breaks. Alright, I told myself, that's fine. Don't judge. Maybe this old sucker has a few moves left in it. I sat down in my seat and tried to make myself comfortable. Sadly, the seat was not designed with comfort in mind.  Browned by age, more metal frame than cushion, beaten down by decades of countless human asses. An iron bar cleverly positioned to palpate both kidneys at once ran in the seat back, reshaping the curve of my lumbar spine. No amount of turning, twisting, leaning, or reclining spared me from the discomfort. Fine, i thought again, this is fine. It's only 10 hours...

The seats turned out to be the least of our concerns. Our driver revealed himseld to be a fucking lunatic. This dusky sleep deprived chain smoking individual, who shall remain nameless, seemed to have zero regard for his own life, and even less for the lives of those stuck in the back of his rolling death trap. Hairpin turns taken at ridiculous speeds at night in the rain, ancient breaks squealing in agony. The bus rocked back and forth like a ship at stormy sea, tires inches away from cliff edge and certain death. Every hole in the "road" (at times asphalt, mostly mud and rock and dirt) sent us flinging up out of our seats, shocks absorbing absolutely nothing. Twice i slammed my temple into an iron bar positioned over the window, it's sole purpose seemingly to punish me for sitting next to it. A passanger behind me started sobbing, expressing with unabashed honesty what we were all feeling. "Holy fucking shit, I'm going to die."

Hours crawled by this way. We pretended to sleep, closing our eyes to avoid looking out the windows and seeing death run parallel to the worn tires. To avert our gaze from the sight of our lunatic captain passing other vehicles. To try and remain sane. Some time around  four in the morning, six hours into this harrowing journey I came to a couple of conclusions. For one - I had, up until that time, valued my life too highly,  held on to the need to LIVE too dearly, was far too impressed with my own existence.  In order to not freak out that very moment I needed to learn how to let go. No way to hit the brakes and no hope of escape. Much like life. Maybe you get to where you're trying to go, or maybe you expire along the way. Either way, you're on the bus.  A tickle rose up inside of me and forced it's way from my belly to my throat.I couldn't contain it. I burst out laughing. Things got easier after that. Hysterical laughter has a way of soothing over extreme stress.

Seemingly against all odds we arrived in Manali sometime near dawn. The first light of false sunrise cast shadows upon the high hills as we stumbled out of the torture device that had passed for our transportation, bleary eyed and ever so grateful to be alive.  I looked back at the bus one last time, silently thanking it for not falling apart. And for the lesson it thought me. We took a taxi up the hill to Old Manali and took a room in the first hotel we found. Utter exhausted we finally slept.

Waking up in Manali was a glorious revelation of blue skies and sunshine. The air crisp and clean, the sun's rays warm, the lush green hills embracing the town in all directions. Almost immediately upon waking i was offered hash by some kindly Irish backpackers and the day rolled into a peaceful invigorating affair. We sampled the local lassi (a curd drink mixed with fruit that is quite delicious) over breakfast, lounged taking in the views sipping tea, and spent hours talking with our new friends.

Two days passed in this manner but we still had a ton of ground to cover to ensure we made it to Leh in time for our flight. Leh was some 500 kilometers north of us, and the passes were at risk of being snowed under. We had to make moves, and as much as i wanted to stay and hang out for a few more idle days, we didn't have the luxery of doing so.

How do you follow up a bus ride from hell? Take another one, of course. I won't go into the excruciating details of the journey from Manali to Leh lest i am forced to rename this blog "Travels of the Discontented". Let me just say that Rhotung Pass translates roughly into "pile of dead bodies pass" and with good reason. It was a mud thickened strip winding up a cliff side, too narrow by far. Terror has a face and that face is the edge of a ravine in a bouncing minibus. Never again i thought to myself after the arduous trip ended. Never again shall my ass touch a bus seat in India.

Terror and discomfort aside the trip exposed us to stunning views of the Himalayas rising out of the foothills we were leaving behind. Snow capped peaks loomed in the distance against the brightest of blue skies. Our road wove through dusty dessert and up brown stone into the heavens. At the greatest altitude we were cliff side at 5,300 meters where the oxygen exchange between air and lung is at some 50% that we sea level dwellers are accustomed too. In other words your head swims with dizziness and it is fucking hard to breathe. Day turned to night and we slowly inched our way into Leh. Arrival was a brisk 19 hours from departure. 

Leh is positioned some 3,700 meters above sea level, so the acclimation process takes a couple of days. Just walking up the stairs at the Oriental Hotel where we me tup with Monet (who had left a day before us) was difficult. The town is called the Switzerland of India, and with good reason. It is ringed in all directions by some of the most impressive snow caps i have seen. The views are astounding, and to be as cliched and trite as possible, breathtaking.

We hung out acclimating for a couple of days and then decided to explore a bit. Waking up early one morning we traveled to Thiksay Gompa, a Buddhist monastery 13 kilometers outside of town. We arrived in time for morning prayer and were treated to the amazing experience of the monks chanting mantras and playing instruments. The mantras were momentarily interrupted by a controlled cacophony of cymbal, horn and drum. The former two were played by elder monks, the latter by the young. (I took a few videos of the prayers that i hope to post when i get back home.) I was surprised by the amount of boys under the age of 10 living and studying there. In retrospect i should have expected it but the sight of twenty or so young boys in red robes took me aback momentarily. These little monks in training were not all quiet wisdom and reflection tho. They were children as well, poking one another during prayers, laughing at the toursists, and recieving semi reproachful looks from their elders. The youngest distributed chai tea and cornmeal soup to the rest as prayer progressed. I wondered at the old saying about the observer changing the observed by virtue of simply watching. I felt a bit like an intruder but the entire experience was incredible.

Our next stop was to be Pangong Lake, some 5 hours out of Leh. Journey to the lake, which lays on the border of China requires a special permit and anyone traveling on a diplomatic visa is denied entry. We had a rented SUV and a driver for the day and were all set to go but were stopped a few kilometers from Thiksay by the Indian Army. Apparently the pass to the lake had received heavy snowfall the night before and the road was unsafe for travel. Reluctantly we turned back around, losing our chance at seeing the amazing lake.

Later that day we climbed a hundred or so meters to Shanti Stupa, which was conveniently located near our hotel. The amazing monument to Buddha was built in the 80's by a group of Japanese Buddhists and boasts some of the best panoramic views available in Leh. The reliefs on the circular monument depict the life of Buddha, from birth to his battle and subsequent defeat of demons and mahanirvana, his death. The entire structure is amazing and the views just add to the awe i felt when spending time up there. Completely worth the breath stealing climb to reach its heights.
Shanti Stupa

Our time in Leh comes to an end on Monday morning. We are catching a flight from here to Kathmandu Nepal, via Delhi. I'll try to post my final impressions on my relatively short time in India next time i post. Till then, be well all.

View from the Shanti.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Things Change

So i use travbuddy as a travel blog. its got all my blog posts thus far. here's a link!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Namaste - Annapurna Circuit

Namaste is roughly equivalent to "greetings" or "good day," in English, implicitly with the connotation "to be well" and i think i said it about 5000 times over my 12 days in the Annapurna region.

The Annapurna Circuit sees thousands of foreign trekkers every year. It's route snakes thru lush valleys and up to arid peaks, passing Buddhist and Tibetan villages and even some Hindu holy sites. It can take as little as 17 days to complete the entire circuit (or 10-12 days to do the first half, like we did), or as long as one wants to wander within the mountain range. You could very easily take your time and spend months without once leaving the circuit.  

When planning the trek Amy and i decided that we would take no guide and no porter.

Day 2 views.
Essentially that meant we had no translator, no one to show us any cool short cuts or give us some background info and most importantly no one to carry our shit. Anything we brought with us would ride in our packs or on our persons from the start till the very end.  Thru the process of brutal elimination we managed to cut our pack weight to about 10 pounds each, taking only essentials (and a couple of toys, can't lie) and warmer clothing for the higher altitudes we would enter.

The Annapurna circuit used to be done in a clockwise fashion, starting at Phedi and passing Jomson before hitting the pass. Most people travel it counter clockwise nowadays and we decided to do the same, for a couple of reasons.

Hop hop hop.

A - there is a "road' that has been under development from Phedi to Jomsom and from Jomson to Mulktinah for a few years now, making the clockwise route busier and less pleasant than it used to be. Jeeps and buses do not make for interesting trekking buddies.
B- tackling the pass counterclockwise is easier, the climb less steep, which is a blessing since the pass was FUCKING HARD enough.

We set off out of Pokhara early on the first day, and took another one of those terrible third world bus rides to Besisahar, the entry point into the circuit. (for those of you with no knowledge of the region and who never intend on doing this trek im sure the town and village names will mean next to nothing.

A waterfall runs thru it.
apologies in advance.) This particular bus ride stands out as it introduced me to the idea of Nepalese personal space, as in...there is no such concept. The bus was over loaded, about 20 seats and maybe 30 people packed in. At one point i had a Nepalese gentleman decide to come over and talk to his buddy, who was sitting in the aisle next to me. Without asking or even looking back he proceeds to wriggle his ass in front of my face for a bit than sits on my armrest and gently reclines into my shoulder, turning me into his personal armchair. Now, in NYC if you tried to pull this shit on the subway your ass is going to get smacked, or worse. Someone, probably someone having a bad day, will very quickly show you the error of your personal space invading ways. So i tapped this person on the elbow and tried, with hand gestures, to explain why i was not comfortable with his actions.

What a place to have lunch...
He gave me a queer look, stood up for a second and then leaned on back of my headrest, forcing my entire body forward. sigh. i couldn't win. thankfully i was going someplace without cars or buses for the next 2 weeks.

Anyway, 5 hours later we were out of the bus, packs on our back, taking our first steps into the Annapurna circuit. i had waited for this moment for a very long time and a low thrum of excitement was building up within me. Almost immediately we met a couple from Canada and fell in step with them. John and Kristen would be our shadows for the next week or so. We did not share the same pace and they wanted to take their time on the trek, but we ran into each other almost daily for the next 8 days. They entertained us with stories of their travels around Asia over Dahl and dinner time tea.

Mischievous little Nepali girl.

I have a tradition of starting every hike/trek by searching out a suitable piece of wood to act as staff and pole. In Peru i found that bamboo makes for a perfect walking stick. It's light weight and strong with a flex i find perfect for my needs. Thankfully i located just such bamboo pole within minutes of undertaking our journey and it would be my constant companion for the next 12 days.

The circuit starts at 800 meters altitude and climbs every day until the ultimate ascent into the Thorong La Pass which looms at a hefty 5,450 meters above sea level. In comparison the Empire State Building stands at a total height of 380 meters. Mt McKinley in Alaska, the highest peak in the USA, has a total height of 6194 meters. One last piece of trivia.

Typical village along the early part of the trail.
..the human body process 53% less oxygen at an altitude of 5000 meters.

On day one we started far below the cloud line. It was nearing the end of monsoon season, but that still meant it was humid and wet every inch in the lower valleys. We slowly made our way thru lush hills and over swollen rivers, into and out of bamboo forests and along muddy mucky leech inhabited track. The little bastards are sneaky, they get on your shoe as you pass over a puddle or step into some mud and crawl inside, numbing the area they sink their slimy mouth over before sucking your blood. Finding them on our persons was always an unpleasant experience. Sometimes the trail would vanish under a rushing stream and we'd take our shoes off to walk over wet stone, sometimes it would be enveloped by a waterfall, which had to be traversed with utmost care.

That's the trail...and that's a waterfall.
We skipped from rock to rock with our packs on our backs like Mario and Luigi, except without the benefit of one ups or extra lives. At one point, on the second day of our journey, the trail wove its way into a hillside which was nothing but gold and silver speckled mud. This giant hill of mud perplexed us greatly. Every sign of the path disappeared and when i made the mistake of putting my foot into the muck.  I sank down to my ankle, and probably would have lost my shoe if Amy handn't yanked me back onto a rock. We gingerly navigated some half immersed boulders after watching a couple of locals make their way thru the mud.

Each night saw us staying in a different village along the trail. All of our accommodations were pretty basic and we learned to appreciate small things like thicker sponge mattresses, walls without cracks to let the critters or the cold night wind inside, a "shower" that ran from tepid to warm as opposed to stone cold to still cold, a squat hole that didn't stink TOO badly.

Dah Bhat. Yum!
Dinner (and for me usually lunch) consisted of dahl bat a local dish of rice, soupy lentils, curried potatoes, and something pickled, usually something i could not identify. It was all food found in the ecosystem and eating it was akin to consuming pure energy. My body grew accustomed to the fare. I stopped feeding it booze and meat, and my intestines responded in a happy fashion. My only vices were the occasional soda consumed for a quick burst of sugar, my small hoard of snicker bars, and the cigarettes that i foolishly brought up with me. In retrospect i wish i had left those behind but they were available everywhere and at prices cheaper than almost anything else you could purchase. A pack of cigs cost less than a chocolate bar, much to my confusion.

Everyday we climbed higher into the hills and everyday we saw the climate around us change.

Lower Pisang, day 5.
The bamboo forests gave way to pine, the rain came only at night, the humidity declined, and the mosquitoes disappeared altogether. Low valley gave way to middle hills, muddy track to dusty path. At some point we started to catch glimpses of the snow capped mountains looming to the north, and they were beacons. The trail would turn and dip into a valley, the peaks would vanish, but we knew they were there in front of us, waiting. The very land seemed to expand at some point, and we walked past fields of wheat and pasture for horse grazing where before we traversed along tiered rice paddy and river.

We met many a trekker on our journey, and for every two tourists a local porter or guide. Some of the porters were carrying far more than they should have been, an over sight by the tourists that hired them and the greedy trek companies that organized the trips.

A day before Manang.
We met porters who were carrying not one but two or three suitcases on their backs, all using a sort of sling harness that went over their foreheads. Now, i understand that some people just NEED to bring extra food, extra fleece, extra make up, extra whatever the hell have you but really a suitcase? That's plain irresponsible and flat out wrong. Leave your fucking Gucci luggage in the hotel and invest in a proper bag, if you are using a porter, please! These stopped locals made their way up the path faster than the locals, but ultimately i question whether the toll on their bodies is worth the meager earnings they pocket. Even worse were the accommodations these local porters were subjected too. Every hostel and tea house had a "Nepli Room" which was usually the worst room in the establishment lined end to end with twin beds, so that the porters slept side by side in absolutely zero comfort, with no blankets or pillows.

Coming upon Manang.
None of the porters i communicated with seemed to think anything was out of place and that just pissed me off more. These are people, not mules. I took a tiny comfort in knowing that we hadn't exploited a local in this fashion, but it was purely a moral victory. And in the end we had to hire someone for the last leg of our trip.

Day six and seven saw us staying in Manang, a small village resting at 3,700 some odd meters. We were advised to stay there and acclimatize to the altitude and so we did, using the day to rest, sipping tea, taking in the spectacular mountain views and reading in leisure.

The road grew harsher after those two days, the air thinner, the nights colder. The cold mountain air rubbed our throats and sinuses raw until we were all producing thick mucus and a dry persistent cough.

Buckwheat grows while the mountains look on.
We took to sleeping in multiple layers, under the heavy local blankets, and we were still cold. I have a hard time getting real REM at altitude and my nights were filled with disjointed but epic dreams. I found my brain going back to my days working at the New York Post every night, much to my puzzlement. As entertaining as the dreams sometimes were i wished for some real sleep.

At the end of each day we would consult the map to hart our progress and we would see Thorong Pass approaching, looming ahead of us like some final boss in a video game. We knew that soon we would have to face the 1000 meter ascent.

That day came on the 11th of the trek. It started at 430 on a frigid morning in the Himalayas. Breakfast was tea and a couple of boiled eggs, my usual.

View from hostel in Manang.
By this point we had hired a porter for the final leg of the journey. Amy and i split up our stuff, leaving one bag a bit lighter than the other, and rotated carrying it while our porter hefted the heavier of the two. This proved to be an ironic decision. We attempted a 200 meter initial ascent in the dark morning hours but the altitude got to Amy, inflicting her with nausea, shortness of breath and a general inability to climb higher. We descended back down and waited a few minutes before trying again. This time we made more progress but again the altitude gain was too quick. If we had an extra day to acclimatize i have absolutely no doubt that Amy would have conquered the pass on her own, but we did not want to spend another frigid night in the desolate "village" of Thorong Phedi (really just two hostels and a couple of yaks) nor did we want to risk an acute onset of altitude sickness so we decided that the porter would accompany Amy back down to find a horse and that i would proceed on foot.

Climbing towards Thorong Phedi, a few hours out of Manang.
We split up our gear right there on the moonlit slope so that i carried as little as possible on my back. I watched Amy and our porter them make their way down the hill until they became dark specks. 

Alone for the first time on the trek i ascended, step by tiny step. The going was slow, the air painfully thin. I made sure to keep my breathing under control, not too deep less i hyperventilate, not too shallow and too fast lest the same happen. I created mantras in my head, distracted my brain with thoughts of Jaime meeting Un-Cat, and used some blaring hip hop as motivation. Allow me to re-introduce myself you fucking steep ass path! Jay-Z as a motivator struck me as hilarious at that moment but the beats kept me going.

Hours passed, the sun came up to keep me company, and my left foot stepped slowly in front of my right, my forward weight leaning on my bamboo pole.

Getting close to the pass.
I rested often and took in the spectacular mountain views on all sides while eating my last three snickers. Even eating had to be slow and methodical at altitude or you suddenly found yourself with a mouthful of chocolate gasping for air. My first trip into altitude in the Andes last year left me vomitting and feverish, mewling like a little babe. I was determined not to let that happen this time around.

This is how i found myself sitting on a small rock, face to face with the snow caps and some of the mightiest peaks of the Himalayas. I was overcome with a sense of awe, a humbleness bordering on servitude. The mountain was all that existed and i was its little bitch. I exalted in the feeling, in being a small tiny creature climbing a giant king of a rock, of doing something that a year ago had bested me.

We made it!
I thanked whatever willpower had me still on my feet, and continued on. Five hours after i took my first steps that day i found myself clearing one last camel back, one last false summit, and there it was. Thorong Pass.

It was all downhill from there, literally. 1500 meters straight down, which is pretty painful in it's own right. I pity anyone with a bad knee attempting that descent so quickly after the uphill slog. As i write this, sitting in a small internet cafe in Pokhara 48 hours after the fact my legs are still sore, still hurts to stand up, to walk up stairs.

The trail took us down the other side of the pass to a small town of Mulktinah. Mulktinah is connected via the "road" i mentioned at the start, and it's impact is instantly visible.

Downhill form here.
The village is filled with motorbikes and packaged goods, loud, dusty, and perverse after the peace and solitutde we found on the other side of the pass. On the far end we located a jeep depot with dozens of jeeps waiting to take us down the dirt road to Jomsom. We decided to take the first available car south, somewhat disillusioned by what we found, and hauled ass to Jomson. We spent the night in a quite hostel and engage in conversation with its owner over dinner. Turns out he lives in California and has a restaurant in the Nappa Valley. He told us a bit about the history of the town and bemoaned the stingy tourists the circuit has been attracting recently. He shook his head sadly while telling us over tourists who haggled over room prices, quibbled over what literally amounts to pennies.

From Jomsom we booked passage on a tiny airplane that navigated it's way no higher than the hills, flying south through the valleys. Before we knew it we were back in Pokhara, (which seems like a booming metropolis to someone who's been away from modern civilization for two weeks) almost as if we had never left. The transition was jarring and a bit melancholy, truth be told. I immediately missed the unspoiled greenery of the circuit. I was just a brief visitor and i was going back to where i really belonged, a place of machines and carbon monoxide and commerce. Not a happy thought.

Life, as I observed, was hewn from the very land the people of the Annapurna region inhabit. To an outsider like me it's like someone turned the clock back one hundred and fifty years. No Lexuses, no Rolexes, no scratch off lotto. You eat what you harvest, you trade what the land provides, you build your habitats from the materials on hand, and you live life seemingly closer to the essences. Does simple mean better? Is there more inherent value to the lives these people lead than the one I do?

It's a complicated question. From my observers perch, mine eye already sensitive to the garish nature of my culture, the crudeness of western civilization and its impact stood out like bold typeface almidst a page of sanskrit.  Young Nepali boys running around with life-like plastic Glocks, shooting up the hills, the chickens, each other. Ninty percent of them wore World Wide Wrestling t-shirts. The WWF.... ambassador of Americana? In terms of culture it doesn't get any worse. Will watching bulging men on steroids simulating physical violence enrich them in anyway whatsoever? In one hostel, I observed a particularly disquieting scene over dinner. This establishment must have been doing well, as it sported a high-definition flat screen in the dining area, and even had a satellite uplink. Porters crowded around the set as it spewed colors and lights until they were dislocated by the white people, myself included, who came to eat. At that point the channel was changed to Starz or something, presumably in a misguided effort to make the westerners feel at home. The movie playing was one of Hollywood's finest productions, the cinematic masterpeice…Van Helsing. Nobody wanted it on and it went unwatched with the glaring exception of a little Nepalese girl, daughter of the innkeep. She stared at the tv in rapt fascination as monsters and grotesques did battle with one another. The screen depicted a succubus, seductive and sexual, engaging in some act of ridiculous violence with the protagonist. The little girl whirled her head around, eyes wide, to check if we were paying attention. I wanted to tell her that what she was watching, while glossy and flashy and stimulating, was trite tacky souless turd. Instead I shook my head sadly and kept silent. Who was I to say anything?  As a tourist in these mountains, I was partly to blame.

I might as well have been that Hollywood movie for all the good I did.
On the other hand you can't completely discount the positives Western society brings to the table. Health care, clean water, some sort of model for an educational system (the locals were terrible at math, stumped by the simplest room and board bill). Yet as i sit and type these words they ring false. In the end, I think the peoples of Annapurna and its many small regions and villages would be better off if we had never inflicted our culture and our values upon them.

Every month, every year, progress is made on the a road that traced our route. One day, maybe less than a decade form now, the circuit as i experienced it will be a forgotten memory, a place of buses and jeeps and day trips for rich tourists, mirroring what is happening on the other side of the pass. If you harbor a desire to walk the Annapurna circuit do so quickly, before progress renders it obsolete.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Kathmandu and Thoughts on India

We arrived into Kathmandu in whirlwind fashion and the transition between countries was slightly jarring.  A brief 8 hours between the two nations which encompassed two flights and a three hour lay over in New Delhi's modern airport (which was slightly surreal) before we were in a new country. In a fit of western zeal, perhapse brought on by the shiny shops and the air conditioning of the airport, i ate a  Dominos pizza followed by a spicy chicken sandwich from McDonalds for extra shits and giggles. I NEVER eat McDonalds and Dominos is not real pizza as any New Yorker worth their MTA cards will tell you. Go figure. I was prepared to spend a lot more of my western money on tax free goods but thankfully came to my senses and instead sat on my hands watching news of the earthquake which had hit Nepal's eastern border the night before. I had to reflect on how disasters seemed to be happening all around us for most of our trip. A bomb blast in Delhi a day after we left, a minor quake in the same city, the bus disaster in Kashmir on the same day we were supposed to be traveling there, and now this earthquake. I hoped there wasn't a pattern developing.

Silly thoughts, and thankfully I didn't dwell on them long. 

Kathmandu required our full attention the moment we landed. I gaffed having forgotten all about requiring a visa to enter the country so we had to deal with that once we landed. The process proved pretty painless and even hilarious. I handed my paperwork to a short round Nepalese man behind the visa counter. He took my documents, looked up and me, back down to the passport, than back up at me again. A huge golden toothed smile spread across his face. "Ohhhhhh shiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiit" he exclaimed loudly. I could not help but smile in return, totally perplexed. He handed me the papers and stood extending his hand, grabbing mine and shaking it it vigorously.  Well, i thought to myself, that's a good sign. I like Nepal. Neither Amy nor I had any idea what the man was so happy about.

We were mobbed by touts the moment we stepped out from the airport, 20 men crowding about us in every direction. "Here sir i take you to the best hotel for only 500 rupees" one tout announced. He was immediately shouted down by others so that by the time we had taken ten steps the price of the cab was down to 200 rupees. Thankfully we knew exactly where we wanted to stay and only had to repeat it 15 times before the touts left us be.  

That evening,  after exploring the tourist ghetto of Themal, I immersed myself in a hot bath and thought back on the country i had left earlier in the morning.

Most of my time was spent in northern India, away from the mass of heat, humidity, and humanity that i found in Delhi. I saw so much beauty during those two weeks that i literally can not describe it all. Sunsets in Shimla, from the top of the Silverine Hotel, looking out into seemingly endless rolling green hills. Monkeys playing at Hanuman's feet in the Jakhu temple rising above the city. Rainbows over the Dalai Lama's home in Dharamsala. The hand crafts that lined every street stall there, made by Tibetan exiles living out their lives and their religion within India's hospitable borders. The peace in Manali, again surrounded by majestic green hills, footholds into the Himalayas. Great heights in Leh, snow capped giants standing sentinel over Mosque, Buddhist monastery, and Hindu temple. Three religions meeting at an ancient earthy crossroad. We traveled down a street in Leh hearing the chants to Allah from a mosque while watching red robed Tibetan monks passing by shrines to Hindu gods. Flying out of Leh we saw a massive panorama of the Himalayas stretching out below us. Utterly breathtaking.
Yet behind every beautiful hill, in every nook and crevice, you find garbage heaps. Some of them hidden, so you approach what you think is a beautiful river bank only to look down between riverbank and hill to find gigantic piles of multi colored trash, most of it plastic in nature. A large percentage of it is right in your face insulting your western sensibilities. The story goes like this, and is repeated by almost every tourist i meet. You buy something in a shop. You open it and ask the shop owner where you can throw away the wrapper. He takes it from your hand and throws it onto the street. "This is India" he says smiling at your disbelief. "This is what we do with trash."

Worse than the garbage tho is the poverty. It stabs you in the heart,  the soul, and makes you wonder at the injustice here. How can a government allow it's people to live in these conditions? How is it possible that a country with as much wealth as India can let this happen? I did not think of India as a third world country but i have to classify is as such seeing how the poor here are forced to live. I sincerely hope that the corruption that grows within India's stale and OLD government is burned from existence by the young generation coming into power now. Ours is the Fury and i have felt that fury rising hotly with every glimpse of the people suffering here. Wikileaks released some documents telling of an official here who had private planes bring her the newest shoes from Mumbai, once a month.  This can not be allowed to exist. If these people rise up I will be here with them.

Which brings me to Delhi. Most of all i reflect on Delhi. My thoughts on that city are troubled. It all started in Delhi, and Delhi ran us out of town in a brief 36 hours. It went beyond culture shock, i think. There was a fullness to Delhi that highjacks all of your senses. Everything and anything was happening at the same time. Incredible poverty in full control of the slums that sprout up almost immediately after driving out of the green airport, people people people and their machines everywhere talking, honking, thrumming, exhaling carbon monoxide, at every street corner food being cooked, oil stoves heating spices of every fragrance possible, the barking of dogs, laughter, excrement, buzzing mosquitoes, the sounds of piss splattering a mud puddle, men walking down the street arm in arm smiling, talking, bullshitting, bull shit from emaciated cows, women draped in every color imaginable floating over all of it, skies at times pissing rain, at times burning down thru the pollution, and the rampant humidity of Monsoon so that every crevasse of your body is damp within minutes of exposure no matter the weather; being sold to, coerced, stared at, talked about, helped, scorned. As much poverty as exists there is offset on the other side of the scales by the obnoxious wealth that moves men to build dining rooms the size of footballs fields equipped with toy trains made of solid gold, delivering salt and pepper and saffron in golden containers to those who dine upon the backs of them who sweep their marble floors. And everywhere the remains of human consumption, the garbage heaps in every gutter, in every alley, on every street.The shit piles in the gutter, so that you can not tell excrement from mud.
Anything and everything and you. You, thrust into the face of EVERYTHING. And it is all happening at once.

It was too much. We were too tired to deal, too confused to make sense of it, too hesitant to embrace the everything. I wonder how long it takes one to adjust to Delhi. I wonder if i could ever adjust. I wonder at those who come to Delhi and find a haven, see heaven where i saw hell. I wonder if i could ever be one of those people.  

Sunday, September 11, 2011

McLeod Ganj

Double Rainbow Over the Dali Lama's home.

McLeod Ganj is home to the Dalai Lama, who settled here temporarily in 1960. Five decades later he still lives here, and his modest residence within a small temple complex in the south side of town is now his permanent home in exile.

This area, situated amongst lush green hills, experiences some of the highest rainfall in the country and perhaps the world. My time here has proven to be no exception as it has rained everyday, multiple times a day, most of the downfall torrential in nature. The streets run with mud.

I think i expected the home of the Dalai Lama to be serene, maybe peaceful, maybe not as chaotic as the rest of the India I've seen thus far. Maybe some monks meditating over the virtue of trash collecting and creating a clean environment. Maybe just a tiny bit more interest in serenity and cleasnliness. Not so. While the verdant green hills stand in silent testomony, cloaked in fluffly shawls of grey and white cloud, Mcleod Ganj itself is cramped and teeming. The humans share their narrow dirt and gravel streets with cows, goats, monkeys, stray (and at times vicious) dogs, motorcycles, and cars. Just as the with the rest of India pedestrians scurry out of the way of vehicle who rule the road with sheer force of might. If you don't jump out of the way of a barreling automotive machine, honking like a demon to let you know it's coming the fuck thru wether you like it or not, you get yelled at/scolded with extreme derision for being a slow piece of shit that dares impede the progress of fucking progress. Have feet? Fuck you. Get out of the way.

...Which i show i found myself standing in a huge pile of cow shit. Least it wasn't human extrement.
On our second day here i was stricken with the bane of all travelers, T.D. Not pretty. The first day is the worst as your guts basically squeeze anything you might like to put inside of them out. I stayed close to the hotel which blessedly had a proper toilet, and not a squat hole. Hanging on the balcony i observed. An old monk clad in red and orange robes struggling up a flight of stairs, cane in one hand. A gaggle of monkeys pulling laundry off of hanging lines and cackling about it. Infinite rolling clouds opening up into torrential rain. Endless white travelers. Yes, white people.

McLeod Ganj is crawling with white tourists amd ex-pats, all here to find some sort of enlightmenet in the holy place the Dalai Lama has chosen to be his home in exile. They all attempt to blend in in some way, local garb and such, but stick out like sore thumbs nonetheless. Before i came in India i described what i wanted to get out of my trip to a resident of Agra (home to the Taj Mahal which i won't be visiting eat that tourism board!!) and was told that my desire was to have a "hippie experience". I was slightly offended by the label but i now know what it meant. Thankfully, it does not apply to me. These people are trying way too hard.

So, im sitting on the balcony, guts keeping me anchored, when i observed an event that shook me, and disturbed me to the core. A pack of stray dogs came across a squad of monkeys chilling on one of the many tiered cement rooftops. Mclead Ganj is buit into the side of a large hill so the town has many levels to it. The encounter came to a sudden and violent head as the dogs pounced upon the monkeys and attacked. The monkeys chased them off by sheer force of numbers, but not before of of their number lay still and fetal on the rooftop, mangled to death. The screams of the monkeys and the snarling barks of dogs was disquieting, to say the least. A cacophony of violence. The corpse, small and pathetic, lay on its side for another day a reminder that it is not just us humans who are capable of wanton and pointless destruction. Even tho i have seen much suffering since arriving here, this particular event turned my already sour stomache.

All this is not to say that i have a particular dislike of this place. Barring the noise, the dirt, the appalling lack of proper sanitation and garbage disposal, there is a charm to McLeod Ganj, an ambiance i can not put into words.

Tomorrow, it is time to move on. After much deliberation is has been decided that we are not going to Kashmir, but instead will travel to Leh where we have a flight to Kathmandu on the 19th, via Manali. Manali to Leh is known for it's ridiculous dangerous road. One of the mountain passes on the road translates to "pile of dead bodies". Good times are coming, so stay tuned.