As I write this, c19 has invaded Planet Earth. My email is flooded with info about how to avoid paying rent through force majeure clauses, impossibility / impracticality of performance, business loss insurance, CARES Act of 2020, “blue” cities in lockdown (or is it lockup?) mode in “red” states whose governors refuse to padlock the doors or even the borders, eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, and the difference between ventilators and respirators.
Here is something I have never done before.
On February 28 2020 I left DFW for a vacation I had planned for over a year. C19 interfered. For the first time in my travels, I kept a real-time diary. Here it is and feel free to ignore it.
To Nepal, and beyond!
February 28 and 29, 2020
I’ve never written a travel diary. This seems like the right time.
Yesterday was Feb 28, 2020. On Friday afternoon Lynne took me to DFW Airport, there to board a Qatar Airways flight to Doha. I have never been on Qatar Air. I have never been to Doha, or Nepal. And I won’t be seeing Doha. As originally planned, I have 50 minutes to connect to the next Qatar flight to Kathmandu.
As well, evidently I have to clear security again in Doha. And for all I know I collect my valise too. Happy news, 50 minutes of transit time was increased to 70 minutes before I left and more good news, my flight to Doha departed DFW on time and arrived early.
Son-in-law told me that I would particularly enjoy the business class “suite” on QA. He’s right. Although there is no ceiling, I am otherwise sealed in a four-walled box. Clever engineering allows me to lay completely flat.
I advance my clock 9 hours when I leave DFW. I watch a movie I have been itching to see – Pavarotti. Highly recommend it for all opera fans. No, broaden that. All music fans.
Towards the end I press the HELP button; time for dinner. I wait. And wait. Nothing for 20 minutes. Get up and find a flight attendant. So much for Qatar Air’s obsequious service, as was suggested by a good travel bud.
Dinner, anticipating that decent food will be hard to find for a while, is a small steak. It far exceeds my expectations. No booze; no coffee; no dessert. Time for bed.
I press various buttons, close several window covers, find my blanket and pillow, and take one full Ambien. I want to sleep for at least a few hours.
Mission success. Although I am constantly up due to traffic, noises, and tight quarters, it would be unfair to complain. Mostly I am able to sleep.
Now it is 12 hours later; I have just ordered breakfast. This time the flight attendant reset my call button barely minutes after I pressed it. Cappuccino is on the way and I’m excited.
Coda. I should be sleeping. But I found Beauty & the Best, one of Disney’s best, on QA’s state-of-the-art large touchscreen monitor. The casting of Emma Watson and Josh Gad was genius, IMHO.
Find myself getting weepy as Beast and Belle fall in love; lights out.
A full travel day, by anyone’s metric. Transferring at Doha airport is easy, but again not as simple as I was led to believe. There are no helpers pointing the route to business class travelers, much less individual attention as I had hoped. One follows the general TRANSFER signs, well-marked, and then one starts asking every worker in sight if there is a special line for me.
There is, at the end, if you keep looking and asking.
A one-hour layover at Doha feels like 55 minutes too long. It’s efficient here, the airport gleams, and I’m guessing my bag makes the flight too. I guess correctly.
I advance my watch three more hours, then recall that KTM is 11.45+ from DFW. Not 12. How strange, but perhaps this is the first sign that Nepal is not a “business” country.
The plane to KTM is nothing special, and mostly empty. No ‘Q’ suites for business class. It feels much more like a standard AA wide-body plane.
However, service is more obsequious on this four hour flight, as there are only six business class travelers representing far less than 25% of the seats. The attendants are talkative. My helper is a young Muslim man from Myanmar, not happy about what is happening there. I’m rocking out to Dua Lipa, this starts a discussion with him about music. He likes Billie Ellish. You know, the one with the green hair.
There is only one other person ahead of me at KTM Customs and Immigration. The others are in line buying their visas. I already have mine, since I paid extra for FedEx to DC while stateside. The gamble is successful. I am processed in seconds, then through a metal detector that beeps but the Nepali security dudes don’t care (it is 0100 March 1 now), pick up my bag which comes off in the first group, then out the door where I find my driver. Who takes me to Hotel Vaishali, in the Thamel district of KTM.
I talk to my tour guide Achut on the way. He’s got it figured that I am old and need rest. Yes and no. He wants to meet me at 1300 today. No. I tell him WAY earlier. I take half of the generic equivalent of Ambien at 0200 but I get up before 0600.
My room is VERY rustic and there is little difference between the comfort of floor or bed. That’s Ok. I expected this.
Off to the shower. The hardware breaks in two pieces as the knob comes off in my hand. Call reception and a worker is here within minutes to glue it back on. Now, second effort.
On to breakfast. Fresh OJ, I can’t drink it. Fresh fruit, I can’t eat it. Indian bread that is similar to roti (yum but it has some weird Indian spice according to my Caucasian taste buds – wait, is this cumin?) and various other Indian foods which I cannot ID. Some have signs but they don’t really help, like ‘fried vegetable.’
I mean, that’s kinda helpful but I’m not eating fried durian because, well, durian.
Achut contacts me via WhatsApp. Change of plans; he’ll be here “soon.” The front desk calls. He is here at 1000. YAY. Time to meet the boss.
Achut is not easy to understand in person. We mutually struggle in the hotel lobby. He determines that we should walk to his office. Perhaps that was pre-determined. Unclear.
So we walk through Thamel, which I had already explored this morning. This is no tour – just walking at a brisk pace with Achut in front and I’m behind. We’re going to work; this is not fun for him; he is not wearing his tour guide hat.
His office is small. There’s a storefront with a receptionist / secretary. I later learn her name is Shiva, one of the most important Hindu deities. We go in the back room, just big enough for his desk, one ‘client’ chair, a couch, safe, and computer. Two suits come in (they are literally wearing suits) and occupy the three-man couch. That leaves the ‘client’ chair for me.
There is an animated conversation between the three of them; I can’t determine if the subject is me, delinquent taxes, payment of tribute, or clothing measurements. Voices are tempered, I suspect it’s a business meeting and they make the correct assumption that I speak not a word of Sanskrit or Nepali or whatever they speak.
They leave. My turn. Achut prints my Druk Air flight info, and my Bhutan visa. I pay him the USD $50 Bhutan visa fee in cash, which I expected. Achut is keenly interested in the few extra days I have allowed myself at the end of my Nepal visit, presently unsupervised.
He wants to book my hotel. He had previously offered to do so at $90 per day. I found the same room online for less than half that rate. We move on.
He wants to arrange a tour of Pokhara and a safari. I remind him of what I had told him many times by email, that I have NDD as recently detected by my bud in San Diego – nature deficit disorder – and have little interest in valleys, monkeys, mountains, cows, trees, sunrise, sunset, yaks, Himalayas, snow, killing or photographing animals, creeks, streams, fields, &tc.
He gets it. Finally. I think.
We talk about what I would like to see. Clearly, he’s never had a tourist who wants to see the inside of Parliament, Courts, white powder wigs (does that make them Whigs?), culture, or similar. He maintains his composure, and regroups. He’ll work on this tomorrow, he tells me.
I ask him about the remainder of this day, as it’s not quite 1200 yet. He insists that I should return to the hotel and rest. He’s likely correct, he’s been doing this a long time. But I’m not feeling it – far too excited.
I tell him I want a guide now, for the balance of the day. Achut wasn’t expecting this. He steps outside and works the cell phone. He found one, he says, but it will take him a few hours to get here.
My disappointment is evident. So he offers his secretary / receptionist, Shiva, and allows that Shiva will please me. I am initially unclear of the exact purpose – in what manner will Shiva please me? He explains that while Shiva is not a tour guide, she will show me some of the markets.
And so I spend a few pleasurable hours with a young woman from Nepal, who has never been out of Nepal and has no desire to do so. Shiva has both a university degree (issued at 20) and a master’s degree attained a few years later. Her sister died in the 2015 earthquake, as did both parents shortly after. She is 23, unmarried, unattached, and struggles with her enormous loss and position in life.
And yet she is a capable ambassador, answering my questions and trying to explain the complexities of the Nepali versions of Hindu and Buddhism as we walk the spice, vegetable, fish, meat, clothing, and hardware markets in Thamel. This wouldn’t be easy even in her native language, and the attempts at translation are sometimes laughable. It’s a struggle for both of us, but we persevere.
Think it will be an early night, as tomorrow – March 2 – promises to be full. I hope so. I’m ready.
Up early and ready to meet my guide-o-the-day. Hotel breakfast buffet again, most of which I cannot eat, but a few eggs, toast and coffee will provide sufficient fuel. The weather is temperate here in Kathmandu. Not hot, not cold, low chances of precip, should be a fine day for a tour.
I haven’t written much about my accommodations. Hotel Vaishali is perfectly situated in Thamel District, which should be as boisterous as the French Quarter. But it’s remarkably quiet here. I have no neighbors and typically share breakfast with two other people.
Today’s breakfast cadres are from Barcelona, they are proud of their Catalan heritage. I don’t ask, but just by observation they seem to eat and drink everything with no restraints.
I am far more careful. I figure I’ll get ill at some juncture, but I’m hoping it’s towards the end – not at the beginning.
My guide Shanti and her driver (name unknown to either of us) are waiting for me downstairs at 0945. By 0946 we are in the VW diesel, off to tour.
First stop is the Boudhanath Stupa. It’s the UNESCO Site that contains the huge plaster white stupa, with the prayer flags over Buddha’s all-seeing eyes. If you research Nepal in Wikipedia it’s likely the first entry. Good news, this is exactly what I wanted to see and the area is full of Buddhist pilgrims. Bad news, we cannot enter the holy building because, well, we cannot.
There appear to be few non-pilgrims here.
So we circumambulate (clockwise only / always) and spin the prayer wheels, releasing prayers to Buddha. It’s an awesome area and I feel the deep significance to those around me who fervently believe.
Next stop is Pashupatinath Temple. It’s a huge Hindu complex, replete with an ox or two (they’re real) and monkeys (same). I know cows are sacred. But so are dogs and I did not know that. Also here is an outdoor crematory, with capacity for 10 Hindus commencing their next journey.
The Temple is on the banks of a river, which serves to abate the fires from the cremation services.
The crematory workers are busy. There are two stiffs starting their roast while three or four others are completing their immolation. Workers step gingerly into the filthy river, there to splash water on the wood-fueled fires that now need to be extinguished.
The Hindu Temple is a golden site in brilliance. Shanti is a fervent believer, and offers tribute to various deities like Shiva and Ganesh. She – Shanti not Shiva or Ganesh – then patiently explains the Hindu religion to me, as she learned it in Kathmandu.
The word ‘complex’ doesn’t begin to describe the Hindu religion. Even base gods whose names I know have siblings, nieces, nephews, children, fates and muses whose names I know not. Each is in charge of something different, all of which appear to be important.
Many are fearful, multi-headed, fanged creatures intended to scare those who question or sin into the path of submission.
I am pumped about seeing my first Hindu Temple. More bad news, I am denied entry. Shanti can enter, I may not, since I am a non-believer. I tell Shanti that in fact I am also a Hindu and will enter. She laughs and says I will be tested and I will fail.
She’s not joking.
Next stop is Durbar Square. I know this place because of Freak Street! It was started by USA hippies in the 1960s during the beginnings of the Viet Nam war. They came to avoid the draft, and stayed because there were no rules here but there were an ample supply of drugs.
It’s 13.40, and I insist on lunch. I’m not hungry since I had breakfast, but still feel like a break would be smart. Shanti finds us a restaurant on Freak Street. I am pleased to see they accept Visa, as I have been steadily depleting my supply of Nepali rupees. Entry fees at each site are approx. 1,000 rupees, which computes to about $10 USD.
I had only exchanged USD $60 at my hotel, but already blew $12 of it on dinner. I know I need to tip both Shanti and ______________ (fill in blank with name of driver). I’m the rich American, this is a third-world country, and I’d like to help them.
Although Shanti offers to pay for her lunch, I insist and tender my Visa card. Then I am told Visa is not accepted. I point to the sign in the window.
Of course we accept Visa. Just not international Visa.
I yield to the restaurant gods, reach in my pocket, and pay the bill with rupees. Oh well. Perhaps there is an ATM in my future.
There are many stupas and chortens in Durbar Square, more than I can count. Buddhist structures co-exist with Hindu temples. At least I’m no longer disappointed to learn that we cannot enter any. This now meets my expectations.
The monkeys get into a fight over a piece of trash. The dogs fight over, well, I’m unclear what they fight about. They’re dogs.
Regardless, it’s an interesting place and I’m glad to see it.
It’s after 1700. Shanti says we’re done, and I don’t argue. It’s been a long first day. But on the way back she changes course and says there’s yet another Hindu Temple I would find interesting.
I reject the opportunity to see another Temple from the exterior. Back to my hotel I go, where I write this travel log and start considering dinner.
Tomorrow I have a 1000 flight to Paro on Druk Air. The landing in Paro is supposedly the most difficult in the world. Only Druk Air pilots with more than 10 years’ experience are allowed to land, and even then, only during daytime hours. Although the flight time is barely more than one hour, we will drive to Thimpu on arrival which makes tomorrow a full travel day with no touring.
My driver comes at 0745. More adventures await.
I am up before 0500, knowing: (a) this is Tuesday morning but Monday evening in USA; which means (b) I have now been out for my first full day as my clients and office would consider; and (c) the first day out is always the hardest. I am on the computer in minutes, connecting to the world to see how many people are yelling at me.
It’s not horrible. Important clients have a new important deal. But there’s nothing else that can’t wait. Off to breakfast. This time there are other customers, almost all of whom appear to be Indian. But for the table next to me, from Australia I suspect.
My driver comes promptly at 0745; we are at the KTM Airport shortly after 0800. My bags are scanned and I gain entrance to the ticket counter.
I work my way through security, then x-ray, then find The Nepali Dude Whose Job Is Stamping Boarding Passes With A Blue Seal.
On to the waiting lounge, this time accompanied by my music box Woody built for me. Kelli O’Hara’s voice in The Bridges of Madison County is my special space today in this crowded area, and I feel a stupid smile coming. Life is good.
Flight time! Well, bus time to the airplane. My expectations are destroyed when I see a recent-vintage 150-person Airbus jet, as opposed to the 24-person prop plane I wanted.
Small matter. I’m no fan of scenery, but how many people can say they flew within a few thousand meters of Mt. Everest? The view is stunning at 30,000 feet and even if predictable, the moment feels important.
The air jockey drops through the clouds, banks hard right through the ridiculous turbulence, and puts the rear tires on the tarmac while still turning. I now understand why the Paro airport is considered by pilots to be the most dangerous in the world.
My temperature is taken – twice – in the small outdoor alcove between tarmac and airport in Paro. There, a man in a white lab coat and face mask conducts a personal interview in perfect English. Where I have been? Where am I going? Have I been to China? Did I come to Nepal directly from USA? No, well then where did I stop and why did I not disclose this initially? How do I feel? Am I coughing, overly tired, sneezing, and more than anything, do I now / have I had a fever recently?
I pass all tests, although the EU travelers behind me fail and they are escorted to The White Tent. I am unclear what becomes of them, but since it is all pre-ordained anyway there is no purpose in asking.
Outside the terminal I look for my guide. There are more than 25 Bhutanese men, all 5’6”, all 130 lbs, all with black hair, all 30 years of age, all wearing the red stripe kimono I see in the pictures of Bhutan with black knees socks and black high-polish dress shoes. Each holds a sign with the name of their guest(s).
I find mine stage left. Tashi is helpful, his English is solid, and he introduces me to Dorji. Dorji will drive. Tashi will guide.
We lock and load and are off to Thimpu in seconds. There is almost no traffic on these switchback roads hugging the mountains, and we climb from 4300’ to 7200’ in 90 minutes, speeding along at ~ 30 kph tops. I suppose again that since all is predestined, there is no need to rush.
I get to know Tashi and vice versa as he is talkative. My first impression is that he is a government minder like in China and Vietnam, but with more freedom and flexibility. We stop for lunch in Thimpu. Tashi asks if it is Ok that we walk upstairs to the restaurant, as the elevator is either occupied or doesn’t work.
Sure, I graciously volunteer.
Guess what, the restaurant is on the 4th floor and the bottom floor is not the 1st but rather the bottom floor, like in EU, so my hike begins without me even knowing it. I am huffing and puffing by Floor Four, but good news to me anyway, so is Tashi.
Besides the obvious, there is a reason. I check the compass on my pocket toy. Paro’s elevation is 4200’. But Thimpu is at 7200’. I feel better about being winded.
I am seated by myself as there is almost no one else in this restaurant, c19 having destroyed tourism here too. Tashi eats in another area. I invite Tashi to join me, he makes some lame excuse but the gravamen is, I think, that he is not allowed. I don’t see Dorji or I would invite him too.
Four small bowls are delivered to me, along with one medium. The small bowls appear to contain spinach with cheese, cabbage surprise, unidentifiable road kill, and a white cream sauce with chili peppers. The medium bowl has lentil soup.
Also served is a small tinfoil containing three very small tortillas.
Knowing I will be ill soon anyway, I pick at some, try a taste of all, and drink copious amounts of bottled water. The road kill is stringy and chewy, the cheese spinach is good. A sliced green banana is produced, more to signify the end of the meal I think than to be enjoyed.
Next stop is The Thimpu Post Office, and I have no idea why we are stopping here. Seemingly there are two reasons. First, there is a display of wooden phalluses on the top shelf that Tashi wants me to view. Second, I am invited to pay 500 ngultrum to have a postage stamp made of my face.
I decline the stamp and evidently the phallus display was for shock value as it relates to a fertility god I will meet soon. We leave for the hotel. On the way it is discovered that Tashi is learning a new foreign language. So we both practice our first grade French.
Clearly, his is better than mine and I am bummed. But we have fun teaching Dorji to roll Rs.
We check in to the Hotel Phuntsho Pelri. I may be the only guest. Tashi patiently explains to me that there is hot water between 1700 and 0900 daily. The hint is I might want to consider delaying ablutions until those hours. I tell Tashi bon nuit and adieu as evidently the afternoon is mine to do as I please.
And so I am free to explore this village, the capital of Bhutan.
I am up before 0500, and on my computer by 0501. I have 51 emails from yesterday. Only a few are garbage, the others require either thought or response. Some need both.
If that’s the bad news, the good news is that: (a) I am able to ‘tether’ to my pocket computer although it takes several tries and several minutes, and (b) none of the emails require too much of my attention.
The email process takes a full hour as internet speed is similar to connecting on the Southwest Air flight to LaGuardia. One types and waits several seconds for the text to appear. It’s frustrating, but doable.
Time for morning ablutions. I turn on the hot water but there is none. Guess I won’t be shaving. Again. But this also means no shower. Bhutan water comes directly from the Himalayan mountains. It is close to 32 deg, IMHO without testing.
I call downstairs to receive assurance that it will be fixed pronto. Wait 15 minutes, call again. Wait 10 minutes, call again. Wait five minutes, and call the last time.
I find my flippers I have conveniently packed, and walk down three flights in my shorts. The halls and common areas of the hotel are not heated, the temp must be below 50 deg.
The front desk helper changes his tune. In person, he allows that he has contacted The Maintenance Boy and TMB is most assuredly on his way here. But unfortunately he doesn’t live close.
I ask him to contact my guide Tashi. He looks glumly like that is not possible. I force the issue and contact is made by phone. I explain to Tashi, Tashi explains to front desk dude.
All of this seems to cause a progression, as shortly after there are two helpers in my room. They assure it is fixed. I test it and indeed, the water is boiling.
Into the shower I go. There is no distinction between boiling, hot and warm – it is all nuclear hot. I gingerly spray some on my head and rub in shampoo, just in time for hot water to turn to cold water which morphs into no water.
I muddle through this inauspicious start to my day, envisioning my lifeless body found three weeks later at the bottom of a Himalayan ravine. This does not auger well.
Breakfast, however, involves coffee so I am re-powered. Time to tour.
Tashi and Dorji are on time. We start at a magnificent Buddhist stupa, with huge prayer wheels that require significant muscle to spin. Unlike Kathmandu, we gain entry and Tashi patiently explains the meaning behind the thangkas, sculptures, statues, mantras, and mandalas. It is fascinating. Also incredibly complicated, as each deity can change manifestations into something and someone else, to frighten the pilgrim into submission and service to Buddha, assist the pilgrim in fornication efforts (my assumption is that this creates future Buddhists and thus assures tribute), and in general to provide guidance to The Path of Enlightenment.
Pilgrims are scarce. Only two prostrate themselves like I saw in Lhasa, and they do so in a special reserved prostration area on raised wooden platforms. The others circumambulate three times; we do so once. I am advised that three times symbolizes hell, earth, and heaven.
On to Buddha Point. Initially I understand Tashi to say Buddha Points, envisioning a Buddha with outstretched arm and index finger. But no, this Buddha sits astride a mountaintop, occupying the high ground. We navigate the perimeter clockwise, and again we are allowed to enter.
Buddha v2 is not unlike Buddha v1. Inside Tashi again explains the meaning of the statuary, mandalas, thangkas, etc. It’s confusing but relaxing in a who-gives-a-care-what-happens-in-this-world kind of way.
Next up, the national library. There are perhaps 300 manuscripts and books. Small library, small country.
Then, the ‘handicrafts emporium,’ clearly designed for tourists to depart with their ngultrum (we accept credit cards!). I don’t buy and Tashi’s disappointment in another day without a commission is not evident to me.
I tell Tashi I want to use the toilet. He says sure as he is headed that way too. It’s a squatty potty that hasn’t been cleaned in, well, perhaps since Buddha’s birth. I am thankful, again, that I am traveling solo as this is a seriously disgusting moment.
We stop for lunch but I’m not hungry. See above.
On to the paper mill and other opportunities to spend money. But I don’t. Tashi seems Ok with it.
It’s midafternoon and Tashi suggests it’s been a long day and time to head back. I resist so we compromise. First, a stop at the pharma for me to buy shaving cream, which I’ve either lost or forgotten. Although if there’s no hot water then this seems pointless.
Second, back to the hotel where we will recoup for a few hours allowing me to write this journal. Then head back out to a combo fortress / monastery which I am excited to see.
5 March 2020
I am up early again, due to a combination of excitement as we leave for Punakha, a two-hour drive through the mountains and curiosity. Will Buddha provide hot water, or any water?
There is hot water! Well, until there’s not. But that may be a function of someone flushing a toilet as the water returns to its dribble function in maybe 60 seconds.
Off to breakfast. Feeling indulgent, I ask Madame for black coffee. Then again, Then, once more. Life is good.
On the way back to my room to pack and await Tashi and Dorji, I stop at the stand where newspapers are offered to guests. I select the first I see in English. The date is October 28, 2019. The second I select is more current – January something, 2020. My surmise is that there is no need for current news, as all is predestined.
Regardless, I ask front desk helper for a current paper. He excitedly says yes he has one! It is dated 4 March – yesterday – but I haven’t seen newsprint in almost one week so I am pleased.
The daily Kuensel, That The People Shall Be Informed, advises in the headline that Bhimraj Rai and Aiti Maya, siblings aged 35 and 29, converted to Christianity more than 10 years ago. But happy news, they were “ritually restored” to Hinduism, their birth religion, yesterday afternoon in a rather simple ceremony.
I learn that Bhimraj is a driver at a mining enterprise. And that Aiti’s husband works at the same company.
Bhimraj said he had intended to bring a pundit to do the rituals, but proved cost prohibitive. I have to research this use of “pundit,” and learn that in Indian culture it means a Brahmin scholar.
In other news, taxi drivers ask for an additional fuel depot. Indian trucks are allowed to continue access into Bhutan. Waste Warriors battle mounting waste. Duktip will face Orong Gewog in the Finals.
On the back page I learn that today, well yesterday, augers well to: consecrate, appease local deities, perform wealth accumulation rituals, learn astrology, start a new business, marry and celebrate, shift house, and to sow seeds. This day does not, however, bode well to appease Naga, to install a vase, or to perform astrological predictions and divinations for both dead and living.
At some level this is like returning to Marvell Arkansas. Not reported is that Beulah Lou wore a bright yellow dress with a pink hair ribbon on her second date with Buster Joe, which ended at DQ where Buster had a chocolate malted and a cheeseburger (double onions please) but Beulah Lou, ever-watchful of her figure, enjoyed only a super-sized order of French Fries and a diet soda. But I would hardly be surprised if it’s here – maybe I missed it.
And time now to sally forth to the next adventure.
We drive to the Dochula Pass, over 10,000 feet high. The view of the Himalayas is likely unbelievable. But I have no means to know, as Buddha has elected to obscure all with clouds. Outside I start a conversation with a Bhutan guide in traditional gear, aided by a NY Yankees ballcap. He claims he is a baseball fan but I think he wears the cap to please his American tourists, as he cannot name one NY player and doesn’t know the base rules of MLB.
I meet Tashi’s BFF named “Pig,” another guide with whom Tashi has worked for several years while they shared the same employer.
Back in the car and off to Punakha. I have researched this city; my pocket computer’s weather app told me it was going to be 9 degrees. So I move my gloves, hand warmers, rabbit lined bomber hat, scarf and other cold weather gear from suitcase to rucksack. I leave my new long handle underwear in my suitcase, figuring if I need it then I’ll make Dorji stop and regroup.
By Buddha I am going to be ready.
We get to Punakha. At least the signs say PUNAKHA. It is sunny here, the temp is 62. We enter the Punakha Dzong, the 17th century fortress. More happy news, today is a national festival for those in the Punakha District. There are dancing costumed monks in the square inside the fortress, and it is very well attended with only a few tourists (I gauge this mostly by the people with expensive cameras) but far more local people who are wearing their national dress. I use that word – dress – purposefully as virtually all Bhutanese wear the same outfit, with minor variations.
It’s sort of a robe and kind of a dress. The men’s dress is knee high; they wear black tights underneath. The women’s dress is ankle length. Men wear conservative, black-polished-and-spit-shined Johnson & Murphy dress shoes. Women wear the equivalent, without the tights. Children too. There are few, very few, jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers.
I stand out for several reasons, some of which are unavoidable anyway. But no one points; no one stares. They have seen tourists of all gradations before. Since Bhutan became a popular place to visit towards the end of the last century, Indian, Chinese, EU and Australian tourists are not strangers here.
It’s particularly easy for Chinese tourists, my new festival cadre explains, as the type of Buddhism here is not dissimilar to the two types practiced in China.
The festival is major fun, and an unanticipated event. I likely destroy the tour agency’s daily itinerary as we stay far longer than Tashi had allowed. There won’t be visits to local markets, which is fine with me. Buddha’s path will be revealed when it is time to do so.
The path appears to be a literal one. Tashi wants to show me another Buddhist Temple, he knows I can’t resist. Yes I say. Nous allons maintenant SVP (he’s practicing French – did I already say that?) I tell him.
We park near a river, in a field next to four-wheel Jeeps and Land Cruisers that advertise “Rafting Here.” No Temple that I can see.
Tashi is rooting around in the trunk, and comes out with hiking boots. Off go the spit-shine dress shoes. Tashi is ready to climb.
I inquire. “Moderate hike” he allows. How many minutes? About 30, take or give.
We start. Tashi is in front climbing effortlessly and barely breathing. I am next, huffing and puffing hard, pulse 195. Dorji brings up the rear. He wears his black dress shoes, I am guessing he has no others. There is no tread on the bottom. They are completely flat and 100% unsuitable for this.
I force Tashi to stop several times, as between the 4,000+’ altitude and my lack of conditioning, I am struggling. Tashi is patient. I am pleased I brought my climbing poles from USA.
They are at the bottom of my suitcase. In the trunk.
Dorji sprints up an alternative path that a mountain goat would deem unsafe.
The Khamsum Yulley Namgyel Chorten is worthy of the climb. It is peaceful here, and the Buddhist statuary is impressive. Glad I did this.
We started this day at 0900. It is after 1600 now. Our day ends. Hotel time.
Coda: back to my cold weather gear I schlepped 20,000 km. Now I think I must have been researching Punakha Alaska or maybe Punakha Mongolia. There is no need for any of this and I must decide to pitch all or shlep.
6 March aka c19 Day
Breakfast is one of my favorite moments. Even one week later, it’ still a special treat to enjoy fresh farm eggs, toast, and coffee.
We launch our four-hour mountain drive at 0900 sharp. Dorji and Tashi are both reserved today. They are serious now, and don’t pretend to laugh or smile at my silly jokes.
Tashi admits that his days as a guide might be ending, I could be his last customer. The Virus has landed in Bhutan. I ask him what he and Dorji will do after they drop me at the airport Sunday morning. They shrug their shoulders, neither has other skills. They don’t know and are anxious. Nervous. Scared.
Yesterday at Dochula Pass Tashi was talking to another guide. Being rotund, Tashi introduced him as “Pig.” See above.
Pig was guiding two American tourists. Their previous port-of-call was in India. A few places in India, I think.
The 76-year old male tourist was complaining of headaches. Later, stomach issues. Then fever. Yesterday afternoon he was admitted to the hospital in Punakha and tested positive for Coronavirus.
His 55-year old traveling companion was also admitted, but for observation.
Pig was admitted as was the driver, both also for observation.
I can only imagine the fear confronted by Tashi and Dorji, having interacted with Pig for more than several minutes. My interaction constituted seconds and there was no EU-style face kissing or even handshakes. I met neither 76 YO nor 55 YO.
I also think neither Tashi nor Dorji was introduced to them. But I could be wrong. I wasn’t with T&D for the duration, I was inside the warming hut.
So off we go, clearly weighted heavy by the anchor that started at the Wuhan meat market in December. This has the making of a long day.
Lunch, I don’t recall. There may have been two Buddhist temples entered. Or maybe one Temple and one fortress. Or maybe none. It no longer matters.
Our day ends early. It is before 1500 and something palpable has joined us in our car. As I am dropped at the next hotel, I ask Tashi what he will do this afternoon and evening.
Tashi struggles to control his emotions. He takes a breath, then tells me that he and Dorji are headed to the hospital in Paro, there to be observed. The virus has now entered his orbit and my world. This is real now, no longer merely a cautionary tale.
Tashi is married. He has cremated two of his children already. He has an 18-month old daughter and wife, and it is clear he adores both.
It’s a similar story for Dorji. Life is cheap, as rural medical care in Bhutan mostly involves shamans, oracles, and witch doctors, and many children are stillborn or only live for a few days.
I tell Tashi to contact me via text or WhatsApp this afternoon and report. He promises me he will do so. I make him promise again.
And now it is 1600. My new BFFs are headed to the hospital. I am mostly unconcerned about me. But I’m supposed to meet my family in little more than one week now. If they are later infected, I will blame myself and assume that I was the carrier.
What to do? At this juncture I feel 100% fine. I have the sniffles, but what else is new as typically my nose drips all year anyway. I have always shared this affliction with my Mom.
I had only tangential contact with Pig, and while I may have been in the same room with Virus Man I don’t think I was close.
My head is clear, my stomach is Ok (and even if it’s not, isn’t that expected anyway for every western tourist?), and I don’t feel feverish. Really, I feel great, maybe buoyed by eating nothing more than eggs, toast, boiled chicken, cooked vegetables, boiled potatoes, rice, and fruit for one solid week.
I learn that the only Bhutan airport that offers international service, in Paro, will close after all international tourists have left, in a week or two. This is a tiny country and my Bhutan visa states my full itinerary, day by day. The Royal Government of Bhutan knows where I am at all times. The Government knows when the last tourist has departed.
I have one overriding thought. I have several extra days at the end of my tour in Kathmandu, with nothing planned so far. I had spoken to Achut about this earlier, and we talked through some options.
My thought is that the Kathmandu airport will also close. But the Nepali government can’t know the number or location of the tourists. The country is far bigger, and tourism is much more accepted in Nepal. My surmise is that on any day the tourist population may number 100,000 in Nepal, as opposed to 1,000 in Bhutan.
So maybe I should see if Qatar Airways will allow me to advance my return to London a few days early. I can leave KTM any time on or after March 9. Perhaps better to be stuck in London, if airports close or quarantines are imposed, then KTM?
I can think of three ways to make this happen. First, I booked my tour through Manakamana Travels in KTM. While it is unfair to say that Achut is responsible for me, in some manner he might be.
Second, when I return to KTM Sunday I can look for a Qatar Air agent at the airport that can assist. I know Qatar Air has a presence in KTM, after all I came to KTM on Qatar Air via Doha. But I suspect that a QA agent in KTM likely has the authority to check passports, confirm tickets, and issue boarding passes. Probably nothing more.
Third, I can get on the phone with Qatar Air. Even if I have to purchase another ticket, this might be smart at this juncture. Then from London I can either stay or return home, assuming again airports are open and quarantines are not imposed.
7 March, the Bug Out Day
Yesterday I elect to exit Bhutan one day early. I have heard nothing from Tashi nor his Bhutan Tour Agency, so all I know is that he is hospitalized.
I put all of this in motion by contacting Achut, who calls his counterpart Nawang in Paro. Nawang is coming to see me, at my very hotel!
Happy news, or is this code for the Bhutan Royal Police are taking me away for quarantine? How strange that a travel agent would come to my hotel. Beyond strange.
I wait. Nothing. Contact Achut. Nawang is “on the way and will be here in minutes.” I wait. And wait. Contact Achut again. Yes, Nawang is en route, I am advised. I wait. And wait.
Now it is 2000. Screw it. I go downstairs to eat dinner, more as an activity then for protein. At the hotel restaurant I meet two males and one female from NYC, likely ~ 30 YO, who occupy the only other table along with their guide and driver. They are retired, and have been traveling EU, northern Africa and the Indian subcontinent for six months. Their last stop was Delhi.
I am engaged in a deep conversation with them, when T&D walk in together, now both wearing face masks. They are asymptomatic they tell me, using words that are similar. More happy news in The Land Of Happy.
They already know, having been advised by Nawang (their employer, I now recognize) of my new plans. They don’t try to convince me otherwise, and don’t ask the reason for the change. I don’t tell them I have changed directions due to their failure to communicate their situation, and consequently will miss the number one tourist attraction in Bhutan, the Tiger’s Nest.
T&D look miserable enough.
I talk to Nawang by phone. He’s not coming to see me and never was. He allows he will try to change my travel so that I will fly to KTM one day early, but he’s unclear if he can get me a seat assignment.
Now it is March 7. I get to the airport at 0815 for a flight on Druk Air that leaves at 1120. I learn here, for the first time, that I am on standby. I secure the last seat, on the last row, at the last minute. I am grateful, as this seems like the right call.
There are three gates in Paro. My board pass says Gate 2. I clear security and passport control in seconds. Gate 2 is barely 30 meters away. The door is open, the e-sign above screams BOARDING.
There is no one else in line as I present my passport and boarding pass. I badly want to get on this plane before someone reconsiders and stops me.
But alas, I won’t be boarding this plane. The gate agent tells me that my board pass says KTM but this particular plane is going to Bangkok.
Sir, is this a mistake? Sir, do I want to go to Bangkok? Sir, you’ll need to start over and you’d better move it as we leave in 10 minutes.
Glory be to gate agents that check boarding passes. No thank you ma’am. I’ll, umm, retreat into my little corner by Gate 2 and try to melt into the wall cover, sort of next to the photo of the current King, his pregnant Queen, and Baby Prince who will be joined by his new baby brother within a few more days.
At KTM airport I meet my driver. We drive 25 minutes to the Qatar Air offices. It’s closed. My surmise is that between Achut and I, we both forgot today is Saturday.
I get the driver to take me back to the airport. We are directed to an anonymous building that seems to have offices for all airlines that serve KTM.
Driver man leaves me at the door. I am guessing he cannot enter. I ask a guy at the Nepal Air office for directions to Qatar Air. He points me up a flight of stairs, turn right, hard left at the dogleg, then down a long hall.
I climb, feeling like King Kong although it is almost a one-mile high elevation at KTM. I. Am. A. Climber. Now.
Make the right and sensory overload. Curry. No, not just curry. CURRY MAJOR BIG TIME.
It’s 1330 and the Nepali workers must bring their lunch with them. Or, as I saw in the Bollywood movie about India whose title I cannot recall, maybe there is a class of workers who deliver hot curry every day from home to office at lunchtime on their bicycles.
I find the Qatar Air office in due course. There is one worker, surrounded by luggage. I give him my record locator, he confirms my flight for 13 March. I tell him I want to change my itinerary. He allows that he is a baggage handler, dispatched here from the home office as a fill-in for someone else.
With a stern visage he tells me that he wants to help, but lo’ he cannot or he will lose his job. Instead, he suggests I call Qatar Air using an American number which he furnishes.
I yield to the travel gods, find my driver, return to Hotel Vaishili. My bellman shows me to my room. It is a bit larger than last week.
This time I am careful, as I have learned from previous dashed expectations. TV control, check. Heater control, yes. Phone works. There is soap. There is shampoo. There are two full size towels.
Good start. The last item is hot water. When is hot water available, I ask. Now I am told. I turn on the hot water. There is none.
Bellman says he is going for backup. Maintenance man comes, tests the water and declares it hot. I tell him it is not. He shrugs and says it is warm, turns, and departs.
I call the front desk. There is an issue, it appears, as the boiler systems are now being interchanged with solar. Or v.v. No matter, again I yield to the water gods.
7 March, Return to Kathmandu
Today, after 10 days of full third-world Asian immersion, I offer the following conclusions.
1. Your life will be defined by breakfast.
2. Do not assume hot water.
3. Do not assume water.
4. Breakfast involves coffee.
5. Electricity sometimes works.
6. Electricity doesn’t always work.
7. Breakfast is supreme, always eat breakfast, trust only breakfast.
8. Bring nuclear fallout earplugs. The kind air traffic tarmac workers use, directing an Airbus to the park lot.
9. Breakfast involves food items you have a chance of identifying.
10. Squat pots are the world’s most obscene invention.
11. Fire is good. Trust fire. Fire brings heat.
12. The invention of the wheel does not mean you will be transported to your destination.
13. Bring a music box with you for long drives and flights. This pro tip also gives you the opportunity to drone out the guide’s struggles to communicate using words.
14. Eat. Break. Fast. It will be your only protein for the day.
15. Bring bottled water everywhere. Including breakfast.
16. Negotiate like the very devil when you buy anything. This includes breakfast.
17. The Asian definition of “bed” does not comport with the western concept of “bed.”
18. Do not assume that a hotel offers soap.
19. Do not assume that a hotel offers shampoo.
20. Do not assume that a hotel offers towels.
21. Do not assume that, if hot water is on now when you don’t need it, it will be on 20 minutes later when you do.
22. Do not assume that the hotel phone works.
23. Do not assume that the hotel TV works, or if so, that you can work it.
24. Study the differences between C temp and F temp before you leave.
25. You know those little plastic baggies you bring with you to the EU breakfast to load with croissants and nutella for your snack later in the day? Don’t bother. Scrambled eggs from a bag five hours after preparation tend to lose their appeal.
26. You will be ill. Deal with it.
27. Smile. Speak slowly and clearly. Make your intentions and requests known. Cynicism, humor and sarcasm don’t work well in foreign cultures. Neither do metaphors and simile.
28. A tip of the equivalent of one dollar can be bigly appreciated.
29. Airports are not like what are you used to. Prepare for ridiculously long lines and workers that do not care about your troubles.
30. If you pack a razor blade and have imperfect vision, correct your vision before you reach in your bag for your razor (I learned this only today).
Post script: Bhaktapur is amazing, easily the best part of Nepal. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas when, on entry, Hindus celebrating a wedding slaughtered a goat at the altar. There was much merriment, for all save one.
Bhaktapur is a City, perhaps 20 kms from KTM. 20 kms should take 15 minutes by car. But no, it’s more like a full hour in choking, polluted traffic. It was the capital of the country, until King Muckety-Muck lost the umpteenth battle to Sheik BlahBlah. Who decided to move operations to KTM.
Regardless, the faithful stayed at Bhaktapur, primarily due to Hindu devotion. Hindus are supposed to make a pilgrimage to various places in India. Those that cannot do so might travel to Bhaktapur instead, where similar temples were constructed to avoid the Indian schlep.
Many sacred sites, business, and hovels – err I mean houses – were destroyed in the last earthquake of 2015. Nepalis are stoic about this. They know another one awaits them, maybe today or tomorrow, but soon.
For that reason and many others mostly involving poverty and corruption, the buildings have not been fully reconstructed. Some structures are completely ignored, while many are held together with poles placed in the middle of the street at 30 deg angles.
This makes for interesting challenges for motorcyclists, tractors, cars, trucks, goats, and yaks. As the concept of “sidewalk” is not existent in this country, one can envision the consequential effect to pedestrians.
So, while one is gaping at the phenomenal architecture with tilted head, one is dodging crazed Nepalis with sacrificial goats tied to the back of their scooters. But good news, they know the drill and striking a tourista is not only bad karma for the guest, but the vehicle driver / goat manager would be in Big Trouble.
It’s crazy cool here. Think Paris’ Latin Quarter carried east far far away, but much bigger – this area would likely take a few days to fully explore. Instead of banana / Nutella crepe vendors like I frequent in the LQ there is a guy sitting on a rug trying to resell his daughter’s used shoes.
This is my first encounter with beggars, although there are not nearly as many as I envision in India, and few here are crippled. I ask my guide, she replies it is a Hindu’s duty to help the poor. This is a holy place, so beggars do better here than say outside my hotel in the Thamel District.
I go downstairs to call Lynne who has helped me greatly with travel plans as things have shifted dramatically o’er the last days and hours. Airports close; people are quarantined; I’ve been in countries bordering the birth of the Wuhan Virus.
I find a seat downstairs and start planning my fun day. Lynne calls again; Lindsey and Woody send emergency texts. My flight to Doha tonight shows “rescheduled” in red ink online. CNN reports that Qatar airports are denying entry to foreigners from Virus-infected countries.
I pack my gear in minutes and grab a cab to the airport, I am here by 0900 for a 2030 flight. I approach the Qatar Air gate agent who assures me that my flight to KTM is en route and I may board, provided I am transiting to another country.
And so I sit, waiting, much like The Band’s Visit, in KTM. I can envision many scenarios, some dreadful, some wonderful, but none lack excitement.
Woody’s music box, which I conveniently charged last night to the max, keeps me satiated. I start with TBV which seems beyond coincidental, move to Hades Town (truly, no reference intended), on to Sweeney Todd and for grins, LaLa Land.
I never tire of these. Never.
This seems to be the right time to write (see what I did there) that my family’s concern for me is overwhelming. They care. Deeply. It is obvious, but I have been oblivious (see what . . .). They are up at all hours to assist, guide, and suggest.
I am beyond appreciative. This vacation has elements that I never expected when I registered one year ago. There are constant surprises, and I don’t envision that will end soon.
I love my family. They love me back. I am a suit-wearing retro hippy dude looking for my balance and that’s Ok. I think.
Thank you, merci beaucoup, muchas gracias, todah rabah.
But mostly, Namaskar.
Two full days of travel to work my way back to Doha and on to London, then transfer to Dublin.
10 March 2020, to Dublin Go I
Some random updates occur:
31. I don’t know what the Priority Pass cost, but if it is within reason buy it. What a relief to gain some shelter from the pollution, and sit at a table that was possibly cleaned once or twice since The Earthquake of April 2015, which is far more than virtually any other public place in KTM. The club seems to have airport outposts everywhere I go. This is big.
32. Don’t think that 100 rupees per kg is as cheap as you would otherwise believe for laundry service. Charged for five kg (which I didn’t think was possible), I weighed the sack at my hotel after retrieval from laundry dude. Barely o’er 3 kg, cleaning dude allowed himself a tidy profit from this tourista. Oh well. Another $2 gone.
33. If one travels by oneself to third-world countries, it is critical to have backup support that will get up at crazy hours and assist. Without it, prep for the worst; hope for the best.
11 March 2020, Hyatt Centric, Dublin
It’s cold, windy and rainy here. There is little live music at the Temple Bar area. The music that I find are guys playing Neil Diamond’s Sweet Caroline, while the others do USA college fight songs like Pat O’Brian’s in NOLA. So the drunken tourists may participate in sing-a-long karaoke style.
I refuse and instead eat Irish stew at a local pub. It’s Ok, nothing special, neither is the beer. The Trinity Bar at One Arts Center in downtown Dallas is better.
But I am not updating this diary because of the music and food. Ganesh’s sword of irony found me this morning.
I elected to purchase breakfast at the Hyatt, one more small luxury. And it was awesome. Mostly.
The ham steak contained a 6” hair. Now understand this did not happen to me in Nepal. Or Bhutan. Or even in Qatar. No. It happens to me here, in Dublin Ireland.
I call the F&B Manager. I tell him where I’ve been and what I did not find there. And that I come here and find this, holding the hair high for all in the restaurant to see.
He did not get the reference. Then it hits me. He is not from Ireland. His English language skills are imperfect, he is struggling to understand.
Sergio apologizes, and takes the plate to the chef. Sergio returns. It is determined that the hair is from a female (he doesn’t say human or pig or yak), and therefore Hyatt is not responsible as Hyatt employs no females in the pig service department but he will contact the pig distributor on my behalf.
Stuart A. Lautin, Esq.*
* Board Certified, Commercial (1989) and Residential (1988) Real Estate Law,
Texas Board of Legal Specialization
Licensed in the States of Texas and New York