Our Taiwanese transfer is long enough to sleep, but too short to leave the airport. Thankfully, Air China has a transfer lounge with comfortable couches near our gate. I set my alarm, and miraculously pass out for around 6 hours, only to awake and board the plane after brushing my teeth and packing up my makeshift bedding composed of a sweatshirt blanket and jean pillow. The lounge has a shower, and I deeply regret not awaking fifteen minutes earlier to use it.
Our flight back to Korea departs and lands on time, despite a typhoon raging a few hundred miles to the west. Our next stop, that is to say my dad and my next stop, is Beijing and we watch as flight after flight to China gets canceled. We already have our tickets, but the layover here, too is not long enough to leave the Incheon Airport. We pass the day at a cafe near check-in, watching Netflix, having lunch, and hanging out as a family. As our flights approach, my mother gets more anxious and mournful that we we’ll be parting ways, and as much of a headache as our travels together have been, neither of us regrets the two weeks we’ve had together.
One of the most expensive countries to get into is now under my belt as I clear immigration in Palau. Though Americans can travel here freely through the Compact of Free Association, flights can be expensive. Simply getting here rewards me with a full-page passport stamp-cum-poem entitled “The Palau Pledge” wherein I promise to respect the country and its culture. I am very uptight about my passport pages, and I hate when space is wasted when a border agent stamps frivolously in my passport. But dedicating a full page to Palau is an honor, not just because this is my first entry into my last “real” continent (who could count Antarctica?) but because I get to sign below the pledge and forever be contractually bound to loving this island. I think all countries should do that. Its just nice. Imagine if all visitors had to sign a form at Newark saying they’d just be cool and enjoy America, and if the stamp had a quote from “America the Beautiful” or “Born to Run.” The U.S. would definitely pick up some brownie points among world travelers and immigrants alike.
We are the only ones who disembark the plane and come looking for a cab. Most tourists rent a car as rentals are affordable and visitors have to drive nearly everywhere here. There are no buses, no trains, and few ferries, but the friendly close-knit island community of around 20,000 makes just about anyone a cab driver who is going your way. We catch Benedict, a Palau native, at the airport and ask him to take us to our motel in Koror. He happily obliges and supplies us with free insight into current events and culture. He is charming in a way that only people from relaxed island nations can be. He is happy to make a few dollars, but he is even happier to be doing what he loves, which is talking about his country and asking questions about America and Americans. He gets a real kick out of my affable mother and we are all beaming after fifteen minutes’ ride. Benedict gives us his card and telling us he does day tours of the whole island if we are interested. We tell him we’ll be in touch.
Palau: Plat Principal
As much as we want to call our driver for a day-long circumnavigation of this island paradise the next morning, we are all just a little tired from careening through Japan, Korea, and Taiwan over the course of a week. Though Palau is an island paradise in nearly every possible way, the challenge of finding a beach bests the Bernabeis and we wind up spending the majority of our day at a restaurant and bar with a pool and thoroughly enjoying the views of beautiful water and tropical greenery. For lunch, I order a spicy poke bowl which I am surprised to enjoy so much, since I’ve had the trendy sashimi dish before back home and been underwhelmed. Vegetables are scarce in Palau, as virtually everything but the fish has to be imported. As a result, my spicy tuna is little more than a mound of (almost too much) tuna caught a few hours before, well-prepared sushi rice, and strips of seaweed for garnish. I somehow digest the meal and go on to eat dinner that night. After scouring the internet for any details about good places to eat, I finally get a lead that recommends Carp’s Restaurant in Koror, past the main port, for Palauan food for a good price. We are not disappointed. Each course runs under 10 dollars (Fun Fact: the U.S. dollar is the official currency of Palau) and we actually find some locally grown vegetables on the menu. We eat garlic spinach, fried tapioca balls (which taste like a fried ball of mashed potatoes) and grilled fish. The hostess thanks us and calls for a cab to take us to the motel.
I am running low on cash, so I decide I am going to walk out to an ATM and take out some money for my coming trips. There is no telling when I will see an ATM with US dollars again, so I plan on taking out a few hundred and stowing it away. While researching dinner that afternoon, I had stumbled upon a Tripadvisor page that ranked L’Amorena, a Gelato shop in the north of town, as the best restaurant in all of Koror. I ask my parents if they’d like to get gelato after my ATM stop and they seem interested so we begin our walk along Koror’s only real road. At night, we take in touristic Palau and make sense of this strange place. What makes it strange? For starters, everything in Palau feels American, and this walk along the main drag is like walking through that of any Jersey Shore beach town. The money is American, and the locals all speak English. Not to mention many of the people here have been to America, many of whom have worked and lived there for a long period of time making them, in my opinion, American. Palau being a CoFA state, Palauans can live and work freely in the U.S., as if they are citizens who cannot vote, do not hold US passports, and do not pay taxes, but enjoy not needing visas, work permits, or residence to start a new life in our comparatively enormous nation.
Despite the Americanity, every tourist we run into is Chinese, and while they spend a lot of money in Palau the locals have mixed feelings about these new kids on the block. For one, many Chinese live and move here, start businesses here, and then when Chinese tourists come they patronize these places but not the Palauans'. We made the mistake of booking a Chinese-owned motel and, while we enjoyed the amenities, the service and tourist advice was lacking, as if the owner had no idea why we would want to visit Palauan restaurants or visit public beaches. Benedict, our driver from the first night, proved to be the most comprehensive guide to Palau we could possibly want, especially since he tried to explain this strange cultural divide as I just outlined.
I feel strange as an American in Palau, because I am treated with so much more hospitality than the Chinese. Walking down the street behind a mainland couple, a Palauan slows down beside me, shoots me a genuine smile, and asks if I want a ride like the two of are in book club together and my car is in the shop. When I refuse he wishes me a good day and drives north. The Compact of Free Association not only allows Palauans to work freely in the U.S., but also allows Americans to work freely in Palau, though few take the opportunity, so in a way I am a countryman here. Or, rather, I easily could be. The island is beautiful, but it is much too expensive to be worth it for most people. Gas is over $5/gallon, and since everything but the fish has to be imported, ultimately you have to pay exorbitant amounts for even basic necessities like rice and canned goods.
And that doesn’t even solve the problem of getting to Palau. Mandatory departure tax from the island is set at $50, and flights to and from Koror airport typically run over $500 roundtrip and can only take you from Taiwan or Philippines. As a result, the majority of workers in the island are Filipino because they can come and go with relative ease, and will work for less than Americans will. All of these barriers make American workers and tourists rather rare, and Palauans treat us like some combination of prodigal sons and long-lost cousins. At first, they treat us politely with “sirs,” and “ma’ams,” then when we reveal our inherent informality they immediately loosen up and start inviting us to their homes and secretly giving us the “locals only” price on things like drinks and meals.
Benedict greets us at our hotel at noon on our last morning, and loads our bags into the car. He is going to give us the usual: a four-hour tour of some of the best sights of the island at the furthest reaches of Palau. In the afternoon, we will board a flight back to Taiwan but for now we are still first-class tourists in Oceania. We start our tour in the jungle, where the three of us are to hike a couple of miles through the forest to a roaring waterfall and swimming hole. Some of the trail is foot-wide and heavily forested, but a half-mile in the trail merges with an old railroad, and we walk along the rusty tracks like some sort of uncontacted rainforest tribe of hobos.
I am enamored; my parents are exhausted.
We reach the top of a hill, sweat dripping down our faces, and just over the treetops we see the waterfall and I race down the steps excited to see whats next.
The trail merges with a river, which would have been fun had we all worn flip flops or, perhaps, brought an inner tube. The ’rents exhibit symptoms of drowning-related anxiety, but the rushing water flows hardly shin-deep in the deepest sections. I tell them I will lead ahead and plot a shallow course for them to follow. Neither parent drowns and I attribute that to my excellent leadership and navigational abilities, even though neither follow my course most of the time. I guess you could say I’m a more “hands off” type of leader who likes to “give his followers the tools they need” in order to “carve out their own success” (Bernabei, 101).
When we finally reach the waterfall, I strip down to my shorts and gingerly descend the slippery broken pine staircase, crouching alone into the shallow pool below. The stream courses around me as I plant my feet on a stone downstream. The pool is rather small so we only stay long enough for me to cool off and wash away the sweat from the hike. Before long, though we have to return to the parking lot and the humidity sends us sweating like pigs again within minutes. Benedict meets us at the trailhead and we change into dry clothes before driving further north.
The next stop is a Japanese lighthouse on the far north of Palau, or rather the remaining ruins that have been left to crumble decades after American forces destroyed it during WWII. There isn’t much to see onsite, but from the hilltop some of the most crystal blue Pacific waters can be seen stretching out for miles. Our next stop is Melekeok, or Ngerulmud, the nation’s binomial capital. All three branches of government are housed on the same property in formidable Greek revival structures that aptly look like the U.S. Capitol building had tan half-Polynesian triplets. We are able to walk right up to each building, as it appears today is a day-off for Palauan politics, and stroll the grounds as practically the only people there, save one or two indifferent security guards.
We stop at a convenience store, one of many identified only by the owner’s initials, before arriving at the airport. I am yearning for one last taste of Palau before I leave, perhaps for ever, but all of the food is boring chips and milk and various imported goods. They don’t have Spam musubi, sushi with a slice of teriyaki-flavored Spam instead of fish, or bento, trays of assorted rice and chicken sold like Lunchables for adults. We elect to eat dinner in the airport, but when we arrive the terminal isn’t even open yet, barely two hours before we are set to depart. It is clear we are the only flight out that afternoon, or perhaps that entire day, and so when we reach check-in (stationed at a folding table next to baggage drop-off) we just show our passports and are given a pre-printed boarding pass then told to go through immigration. We are the first to pass through, and our two-hour wait begins.
Bernabei, Victor. “Leadership for the Lazy, Delegating for Dummies: How to Use Your Character Flaws to Your Advantage.” March, 2020.
A short China Airlines flight conveys us to Taiwan, where we are to only spend a day before traveling to Palau in my next continent to tick off of my list: Oceania. Despite the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, I am incredibly excited to explore Taiwan, the sort-of-Chinese-sort-of-not place eighty miles from the mainland. Now, the question we are all wondering: Is Taiwan a country? According to the U.N., it is not recognized as its own state due to China’s veto power, but they do issue their own passports and have their own visa policies. In fact, Americans can travel to Taiwan visa-free, and as a result my mom did not have to get a $160 Chinese visa for this trip. In fact, Americans don’t need visas to travel to Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau, all of which have their own disputes with China over autonomy.
I have not yet traveled to the mainland, and so I am eager to see Taiwan then compare it to Beijing when I arrive in a week's time. My impressions of Taipei so far are overwhelmingly positive, and I am enamored by the lights, the friendly people, and the enthralling streetscapes as we catch an Uber from the airport to downtown. The first Uber leaves us at our hotel, or, rather a hotel, only to pull away just as we realize that we are at the wrong location. We catch another Uber to our newly-revised destination which happens to be ten blocks away from the actual hotel. Thoroughly annoyed, we walk the last ten blocks and check in to the hotel which, thankfully, offers free coffee and juice to refresh our already exhausting tour of Taipei. My parents decide to spend the night in, while I am determined to see as much of the capital as I can before bed.
I start my hike east toward the Raohe Street night market and observe many of the culinary wonders of the island. Squids on sticks tantalize passersby. Taiwan, based on the day-long layover I spend here, is jam-packed with fascinating culinary delights that your family would never go to, but that they really—and I mean really—should make a visit across the world for.
Every American town of a certain size has two Chinese restaurants: the one you go to and the one you don’t. The one you go to is nice, and you can take your family there on a night out. The other one barely sidesteps being shut down by the health department, and prides itself on economy over quality. There, you can get a dozen dumplings for a dollar-fifty, and you have to assume by that and the strange taste they are made from horse meat, or worse. However, something inside you secretly craves that other restaurant, and you occasionally order take-out from there when you are alone because they make a few dishes that are incredibly good and impossibly cheap, albeit dubious at best. Taiwan is filled with these places, where the owner’s kids are perpetually doing their math homework at a corner table, as they appear to have done 365 days a years since the beginning of time.
Let’s take the first example: 7-11. Though not technically a restaurant, and not at all Taiwanese, capital Taipei is chock full of convenience stores serving up oddly authentic local foods. For instance, Taiwanese apparently thank heaven for abomination under God the “century egg.” These satanic hard-boiled eggs are preserved in ash and clay until they turn dark and give an appearance of being both rotten and possessed by some cosmically evil force. They sell them three for a dollar in big pots at 7-11, and they sell like crazy.
Ok. Maybe I shouldn’t have led with the century egg. But in many ways this proves my point. Taiwan is the place your mother likely warned you about when you were little and wouldn’t eat your green beans. At the many night markets around the city, it is not uncommon to see chicken feet, livers of virtually any mammal, and grilled crustaceans you likely never knew existed.
As much as I want to conquer Taiwanese street food, I am overwhelmed by all that I feel I am supposed to eat. A Taiwanese friend back home recommended restaurant Formosa Chang and bubble tea as two of the best things to try on the island, so I try both as well as some street chicken, or perhaps it was pork?
I take a self-guided tour of Ciyou temple, where incense shrouds the glowing yellow towers containing thousands of Buddha sculptures inside. Next, I see Taipei 101, once the tallest building the world, and stand in awe at the beautiful evening. This part of Taiwan is the least Chinese. Apple Stores and overpriced retail screams “America,” though I struggle to find people who speak English. Here I operate in my less-than-remedial Mandarin, and people are happy to talk to me in the language of the oppressor. This is a country with China on its back, but facing across the Pacific to the United States. I make a mental note that I might want to live and teach English here so I can explore this fascinating country with a little more than twelve hours.
Streets of Seoul
Clearing customs just after the train from Incheon Airport to downtown Seoul closes, we approach the Uber kiosk where a woman with a map of Seoul is waiting to get us a ride. En route to the kiosk, my dad verbally assaults his forty-seventh freelance cab driver since joining me in Asia. My mom does not look amused by this skirmish with an enemy only he can see, one whom he described as “not being human.” Admittedly, I also struggle to empathize with pushy salesmen-types--or pushy anybody-types for that matter. Freeing us from the evils of war, the lady at the desk pages one of the millions of Mr. Kims on the peninsula to come to our aid and take us to our hotel. He is charming, affable, and knowledgeable in English and Seoul sightseeing. He tells me all about the weekly protests that are going to be held near our hotel in the morning against their current president. I make a mental note to check them out.
Incheon Airport sits on an island forty-five minutes west of Seoul, where the air smells like salt and the late summer’s night takes me back to every cool late August night back home. There is no more humidity, at least not now, and I feel I could walk the distance to the hotel just to have some time to breathe in home. As we talk with our driver, I realize the climate isn’t the only American part about South Korea. People are open and chatty, charismatic and apparently very democratic. The fact that our driver finds it important to notify us of protests means there is action and disagreement in this part of the world. Something to sink my teeth into looms ahead, I just know it.
Ascent and Dissent
A large diversion obstructs our getting to the protests on time, however. The 2019 Friendship Festival, an event coordinated by the embassies of various nations in Seoul, occupies the green outside city hall, and I quickly lose my parents as I enter a giant yurt, sampling honey from Kyrgyzstan and chatting with the diplomats from that country about what a good time I had there. This is my Disneyland, most accurately my Epcot, but so much less kitschy. I am in love. A couple of hours later, I have to track down my parents who looked for a shady oasis somewhere in the Middle East.
In the evening we finish our day with a seemingly endless meal of Korean barbecue, kimchi, and various side salads and mixed vegetable dishes. Watching our chef chopping and cutting up our various meats and mushrooms fills us with a primal hunger as we gaze into the fire. We are full to the point of explosion by the end of the evening, having only ordered two plates worth of pork but received over a dozen small plates of vegetables. When we get the final bill, we end up paying hardly 14 USD per person and swear we have to do this again before we leave Korea.
Palaces and Politics
A new day means new opportunities to see the various historical sights of Seoul, including several palaces. After traveling much of South, Southeast, and East Asia, I must admit that my opinion of palaces is starting to sink down to my opinion of museums, but today we are a family (less my dear brother who we wish could have joined us) so that means I have to suck it up. In truth, I do have a good time in Changdeokgung where a vast complex of mostly reconstructed buildings takes us back several hundred years. If I am being honest, my appreciation of tourist sights is indirectly correlated to the number of people who are visiting while I am there. I am a selfish traveler. If I wasn’t you’d see me in Paris eating croissants and foie gras right now, or else in Rome finally sharing a slice of pizza with the Pope.
But alas, I hate to be among other tourists for an extended period of time and find it endlessly exhausting. So maybe that’s why I can’t stand museums or incredibly popular historic sights for long. Perhaps my increasingly acute (and decreasingly cute) introversion has made museums and the like harder and more exhausting, but I do still enjoy social events of a certain type. The friendship festival yesterday was incredibly fascinating, and I had at least twenty conversations in six languages, but whenever I am in a pretty place with pretty people taking pretty Instagram photos, I start to feel like running off into the forest and starting a new life, that is to say a life even newer than this vagabond thing I have carved out for myself.
After the palace, we walk northwest to see the “Blue House,” or the current residence of the President of South Korea. To say the house is heavily guarded is an understatement. For half a dozen blocks in each direction men and women in dark shades stand on corners with eyes most likely scanning the horizon for anything suspicious. Or they are all sleeping. Like I said their shades are dark so who knows. When we come to the front of the Blue House, tourists are milling about and snapping pictures from a small circle on the pavement that says “photo point.” The guards are still scanning, but more aggressively, as if something could go down at any moment.
We walk immediately south into the grand Jongno-Gu Park and start snapping photos of more palaces, libraries, and coronation rooms when the sound of a helicopter whirs behind the tree line. In a minute, two black helicopters are up above us and hurtling somewhere else. Perhaps the President is on the move, or maybe the Uber Eats driver’s car broke down and he’s just getting a ride back home. Needless to say these Hollywood-like hills are shrouded in their own mysteries. The park has enough hidden patios, palaces and moats to hold our interest for an hour until the twice-daily changing of the guard ceremony begins at 2 pm. When we arrive five minutes before, though, the soldiers and ensigns are already on the move, and my dad and I both accidentally walk in the middle of the ceremony, oblivious to the fact it has even started. In the afternoon we stop by another group of protesters with signs imploring Donald Trump to “go back home with the U.S. army.” I desperately wanted a statement, or a conversation, about Koreans’ feelings about the formidable American military presence in South Korea, but no one seemed interested in talking with me, or at least able to talk with me given the language barrier.
Cooking Korean (And: My Parents Refuse to Join Me in a Cat House)
My mother, who quite frankly understands me in ways that she doesn’t understand my father, signs all three of us up for a Korean cooking lesson. I am ecstatic; my dad is less so. Regardless he puts on a brave face and commits better than any generally disinterested husband could be asked to. Besides, in the end there will be food. It cannot be that bad.
We start with a seafood pancake, which is more like an omelette with scallions and squid though Koreans apparently refuse to eat such an obviously breakfast-y food in the morning. Instead, it is more common as a bar snack, even though I can’t see why anyone would stuff their faces with eggs and squid while doing shots. When we finish, it is terrific and certainly something I would make at home if I could just find a good “squid guy.”
In the evening we sup on gimbap, a Korean seaweed and rice roll not dissimilar to sushi wherein the center is stuffed with various fillings from vegetables and fish to Spam and eggs. Spam has been a popular ingredient in everyday South Korean food since the Korean war, when the American military introduced the vaguely meat-like substance to the peninsula in C-rations and it caught on amongst the locals. One of the most popular Korean dishes today is “army stew” which looks like the vomit of a child who only eats hot dogs, beans, and cheese. It is one of my greatest regrets that I never get to try such a brilliantly binational dish on my trip to Korea. But, this only gives me another reason to come back.
To pair with our gimbap, we order three beers which end up being much larger than we expect, but the salty Spam and shrimp rolls make drinking the whole bottle easy, and since my parents can’t finish theirs I help. This is a problem; I am not proud of what happens next.
I generally think that I am a person with a strong sense of both self and self-control. It takes more than a few drinks for me to do something my sober self would consider foolish, and so there is no excuse for my actions except perhaps for the human need for a warm body to hold, and for the comfort that body provides. After I am given a flyer for a nearby second-story location, I immediately say goodbye to my parents and abandon them in the middle of Seoul to satisfy an urge I’ve had since starting out on the road.
I walk up a flight of stairs, take off my shoes, and enter a door labeled “Cat Cafe.”
Perhaps the most wholesome, non-exploitative nightlife development in recent years has been that of the Cat Cafe. In short, those who live in no-pet apartments, have parents who won’t buy them a fine feline, or young couples who want to test the waters of commitment without taking on any real responsibility come to these bright rooms to gain access to sometimes dozens of cats. You can pet them, feed them, or just stare at the overwhelming adorability of countless cats playing, sleeping, and snuggling. I gain access for about ten dollars and buy a soda at the coffee stand, which is more than one probably should pay, but the flyer states that this place has over 50 cats, and I feel that is something I have to see. I spend all night there, only leaving a hair before closing time at 2 am and walk the half-mile to our hotel. My parents are both long asleep when I arrive.
Three's a Crowd
Exhausted from--well--everything, we meet my mom at a coffee shop in Haneda Airport where I am happy to get and give a hug, though I am saddened when I have to watch all three of us struggling to buy metro tickets. As someone who only has a bad time when other people exhibit symptoms of having a bad time, I am about to enter a new ring of Hell: family vacations.
Meeting with my parents on occasion as I zigzag through the world is both necessary and, don't get me wrong, typically enjoyable. I need my medications, smuggled from the United States, and relish regular supplies of American snacks and toiletries. I also obviously love to see my family, and share new experiences with the people who raised me. What I don’t like is feeling responsible for other people having a good time, forgetting about my own desire to enjoy these trips, feeling constrained by some undefined schedule and generally suffering the slings and arrows that family vacations are heir to. A wave of depression floods over me the likes of which I haven’t felt in months when we enter our sixth minute at the subway ticket kiosk. I just want to sleep. Forty-eight hours of barely-obstructed consciousness has made me incapable of dealing with all of this. Sometimes I’d rather go through it all alone. This is one of those times. The subway ride goes quickly, as we catch up, and after a dan dan noodle dinner I finally return to blissful sleep and become normal again.
Hitting the Streets
As I am sure you know, I have no idea what I am doing most of the time when it comes to filling my days. When you are crossing borders, learning languages, and booking hotels and hostels constantly as I am, you often don’t have time to look at Tripadvisor or browse Lonely Planet guides for the Must-Sees of a given city in advance. So, I either tend to do these things day-of or not do them at all. Needless to say, my parents do do them, and I am happy to oblige on our first day together as it will mean I do not have to worry about planning and can have a day to relax.
Do I relax though? No, not at all. In fact, I start to question if I am even fit for human society anymore as I get just as tired as I was the night before after only ten minutes of shopping in the Ginza district. Suddenly I can no longer compromise with anyone and realize I can only maintain a day’s measure of energy if left to do what I want to do when I want to do it.
No one ever mentions just how restrictive being a free spirit can be.
In the evening, we seek out a sushi shop that is either locals-only or is just fully occupied by locals, and a nice woman shows us to another sushi spot where the chef is ok with our party eating with our hands. Shiba Park is hauntingly illuminated in the cloudy twilight and we snap pictures of the shrines and towers before bed.
Morning takes us to Shibuya Station, especially the giant 4-way crosswalk and Hachiko Statue that have become such integral parts of the neighborhood. We share our first familial moment discussing Hachi, comparing it to the Balto statue in Central Park, a New York must-see for our family back when my brother and I were little. It is already lunchtime, so I direct us to Uobei, one of the neighborhood’s renowned conveyor-belt sushi restaurants. There, an iPad sits poised on a stand at each of our seats, at which we simply order and then our dishes roll out to us minutes later. The rain starts when we leave and continues as we take the metro to the Meiji Shrine one stop away.
A three-hour day has sapped my energy and I have to return to my solo travel state even if that means not traveling at all. I condemn myself to the hotel room where I write, read and play on Duolingo while my parents explore Tokyo, out of my hair. In the evening, we regroup for cheap ramen which we order from a vending machine and slurp as the chef smiles at us from across the counter.
The Bernabei family crams itself into tiny Omoide Yokocho, an alley known for food and nightlife. After paying an exorbitant amount for drinks and appetizers, we cross to neighboring Golden Gai where bars are less of a rip-off and tourists are a bit more scarce. This is, of course, for a reason. Many of the bars in six-block Golden Gai can only fit seven or eight people, and so locals and friends often can get a seat while foreigners are strictly prohibited. Instead, we walk to Champion bar, a slightly larger fixture of the neighborhood known for its karaoke and 200-Yen sake shots. We hole ourselves up there and my dad and I sing a couple of songs before the waitlist gets too long and my mom grows bored of befriending young Anglophone couples in an effort to poke fun at me and my father behind our backs.
The following morning we stop at Tokyo’s military museum, intent to see 20th century military history, especially WWII, from the Japanese perspective. What we found differed slightly from what I learned in grade school U.S. history, which made for an interesting study on bias. Firstly, allow me to share my ideas, that is the lessons that have been imparted on me, by an American public school education and then I will point out a few places where the museum differs:
This is where my museum fatigue fades because it allows me to view history not as a monolith but as a series of narratives, perspectives, and opinions. It may not be a popular notion, but I believe two ideas that seem contradictory can be true, it all depends on how you tell the story and who tells it. Let’s start with Pearl Harbor. Tokyo’s military museum argues that the long-isolated nation was dependent on America for a lot of resources, including 70% of their gas imports. When the U.S. introduced an embargo with Japan, the writing was on the wall that the U.S. would side with Allied forces. Attacking Pearl Harbor, according to the exhibit, was just a way of crystallizing what was already known to be true.
Second, the museum makes a point of saying that surrender was considered long before and during the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and that they were bombed while terms of surrender were being discussed. Admittedly this seems like a lame excuse, but it stands as the truth for young Japanese learning about the war and that is its own kind of truth, that is to say it is a truth that is accepted by many people and shapes their national identity.
Finally, death tolls for both Hiroshima and Nagasaki are estimated to be as high as 226,000 (though the museum states that "up to 280,000 may have perished as a result"). Nearly all of these are civilian deaths. If we accept that the Japanese had been discussing surrender, then not only do American attacks on these two cities become immoral (which even my American education argues that they were), but they also become unnecessary. Just because we are the heroes of WWII does not mean everything we did was heroic. Of course, I had to take everything in the Japanese military museum with a grain of salt, but I take everything with a grain of salt. We have to acknowledge that nearly all sources have some sort of bias, or tell only part of a story. Tokyo’s military museum is a must-see, if only for the cognitive hygiene exercise the museum provides. What is true? What do Japan and America stand to benefit from changing the facts now? And is there a value to emotional truths, revisionism, or historiography or should these things just be regarded as "fake news" and discarded?
My trans-sub-continental expedition draws to a close as my father and I stuff ourselves into a bus hurtling towards the airport. But where to next? Why, back to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia of course, where I first set foot in Asia about one and a half years ago. But enough sentimentality. After all, I’ve seen KL, and seven hours is hardly enough to rediscover the city over a half-hour away from the airport. I plot the train stops between KUL airport and KL proper, and settle on Putrajaya, administrative capital of Malaysia, as the ideal location for a day’s wanderings. Our red-eye leads us to wonder if it is even worth it to spend another day, and two precious spaces in our passports, to come back to Malaysia, but when I see an opportunity I take it. Plus, train tickets to Putrajaya run hardly 5 USD, and I love a good layover trip. I am falling asleep on the KL Express platform when the train arrives.
At sunrise, arbitrary Putrajaya is more than a point on the map. In fact, it feels like the center of the world are mosques, bridges, and government offices reach into the sky like Youngstown’s Arms of God. And the best part is that we get it all to ourselves.
What we don’t get to ourselves is the McDonald’s across the river, where the early-morning commuters converge on a quick breakfast before the day begins. I order the most Malaysian thing on the menu: a bowl of rice with a fried egg, dried anchovies, and a sweet, brown hoisin-like sauce. My dad gets an Egg McMuffin. My meal is good, but after a night of not sleeping on AirAsia, it isn’t quite what I need to push through to another evening flight to Japan. Regardless, we persevere and see some of Putrajaya’s dominating architecture before stumbling onto the train back to the airport, after a pit stop at a 7-11 for coffee and ice cream, of course.
The Long Sleep
A late night arrival in Sri Lanka makes us grateful for short immigration lines, and a recent governmental policy change that allows us to visit the island without visas. However, the time we make up at immigration we lose waiting for an Uber. We turn down cab after cab, and I get an in-app alert telling me my pick-up location ‘may not be secure.’ Two drivers accept my ride, then drop it after coming within a half-mile from the airport, so I can only assume there is some out-of-work cabbie with a baseball bat exacting his revenge at the front gate. When our third driver finally finds us and takes us from the airport, I notice nothing but empty streets for the half hour it takes to reach our destination in Colombo.
At our hostel, we pay in the large British Colonial foyer and quickly fall asleep in our dormitory beds. If our Male sleeping arrangements looked like caskets from the future, our Sri Lankan accommodations look like caskets from the past. Long, soft wooden planks line and support our beds like bookshelves in a gigantic log cabin. The air conditioning is strong, but bugs still find their way in, including tiny crawling insects which occasionally emerge from the wood that I pray are termites. I’d rather these insidious insects gnaw away at my bed, potentially causing me and my shelf to crush the person below me in the middle of the night, than have the bugs gnaw at me all night. Been there, done that, wrote about it in book one and in the prologue.
In the morning I awake groggily and we stroll to a hotel down the road that serves a Sri Lankan and Southern Indian buffet breakfast. It is expensive, but neither of us have eaten for nearly 12 hours so we vow to get our money’s worth. The food on offer is incredible, and I eat several plates of curries, kormas, and coconut juice-covered noodles. Though delightful, I cannot justify spending so much money on food that normal people here do not eat. I make a note to find a local spot the following morning and walk the block back to our hotel dousing myself in a humid island sweat before seeking refuge in our room.
Praying for Colombo
Last Easter, bombs erupted in several churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, most within walking distance to our hotel, along the western coast. My dad spends the day exploring temples, and I decide to visit some of the sites of the attacks. Anti-western extremists chose the Kingsbury, Shangri-La, and Cinnamon Grand Hotels, along with St. Anthony’s church in Colombo, as they believed these to be sites of western influence. In these locations, and several others across the country, 259 people were killed and over 500 were injured on that day. Sri Lanka, like India and Nepal, exists in the growing world between East and West. Here, everyone has a cellphone and many people shop for designer clothes. Many speak English, and have family in the United States, Canada, and Europe. Democracy is an integral part of society, and social networking connects much of these people to the rest of the world with the push of a button, or the tap of a screen. However, most Sri Lankans are Buddhist, or Hindu and visiting suburban Sri Lanka can feel like the middle of nowhere. This was a battleground, for one day, between East and West, and I wanted to see the front lines.
As is the case in most wars, the soldiers on each side are typically indistinguishable from one another on the surface. Some will tell you that the Tamils and Sinhalese are two ethnic groups that have been fighting on this island for decades, but who is Tamil and who is Sinhalese is difficult to determine, and who is Catholic and who is, say, Muslim can be hard to distinguish as well. At St. Anthony’s, like in every other Catholic church, the Catholics are apparent. Those who stride to the front of the congregation, pray, or sit with heads bowed are Catholics. I, with generations of Catholics on either side, do a modified macarena, touching where a bindhi would be, each nipple, and my sternum. No one seems to suspect a thing.
In the back-left part of the surprisingly ornate congregation, the cement floor is pockmarked where less than six months ago a bomb took the lives of several congregants and visitors. My heart sinks to my stomach and tears come to my eyes. Why the hell does this keep happening? We are better, and stronger for being different, for having different values, and for believing in different Gods. Why are there crusades, jihads, holy wars? Why genocide? Why does my country have a mass-murder a month, and why does no one cry for them anymore, aside from the victims’ families and friends?
And why can no one see what I see? We are all brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles. Mothers. Fathers. We are children. And with that we certainly piss each other off sometimes but that should never mean killing our family. No matter which God you follow, or which ones you don’t, can’t we agree on that much?
Beaches and Buddhas
Here I officially start saying I’m from America, even though “the United States” or “the U.S.” are my preferred home names. I guess I just like to make it known we are still united in one way or another. I tell you this because tonight we visit a restaurant called “the Curry Pot, which is busy preparing orders for take-out, but we are the only ones seated while a heavy rain batters the capital. The manager decides to pull up a seat next to us, and tells us he is one of 16 kids, and he has brothers and sisters everywhere. Even “America.” We certainly didn’t invite him, but his presence is appreciated. He tells story after story as we finish our drinks and pay our bill. Wherever you are in this world, you can always find someone looking for someone to talk to, longing for a pair of ears to hear who he or she is, was, or wants to be. Finally, someone cutting the shit, not trying to talk us into his cab or tuk-tuk. This is the first time in weeks a local has just wanted to talk.
The rain clears overnight and my dad takes me to a Buddhist temple replete with… well, everything. Relics of human consciousness--cameras, figurines, watches, guns, and the like--adorn shelves while buddhas of every shape and size (including one the size of a deer tick) can be found sprinkled through the 13-stop self-guided temple tour. There is even a garage displaying old cars donated by visitors. The temple feels like some American roadside oddity that has been operational for several years and is beginning to get way out of hand.
On our last full day, we decide to take the bus to Mount Lavinia beach, half an hour south of our hostel accomodation in Colombo. This is the third cloudy day in a row, and we are the only adult people in bathing suits when we arrive. The children splash in the pool between the beach and the sandbar, but my dad and I go beyond where the waves crash. On the Connecticut Coast we do not have waves, and several years have passed since the last time the ocean could knock me down and spin me like a t-shirt set in the rinse cycle. My dad gets exhausted, and when I finally get bored and meet him a man is trying to sell him coconut milk. Instead, we walk up the beach to the road, then up the road to a small French bakery where the cashiers wear berets and don’t seem to understand when my dad and I start speaking grade-school French to one another. We drink limeades and wash our feet off in the bathroom before catching a bus to the hostel.
From Colombo to Negombo
On our last day in Sri Lanka, on the fringe of monsoon season, we elect to catch a bus to Negombo, the largest town near the airport, for a change of scenery. It begins pouring before we leave the tiny breakfast spot where we eat piles of idly, jalebi, and other pastries for a few bucks, and doesn’t stop the entire ride to the bus station where the storm intensifies. Thankfully, Negombo is dry and sunny and our soaked clothing dries quickly as we walk from the bus station to the city’s fish market, which happens to be closed that day. It is Sunday, so all we can do is buy a couple of sodas from a hotel cafe and witness the women out front selling mangled sun-dried bait fish that look like they would have made a nice tuna melt several weeks before. Negombo is also known for the remains of an old colonial Dutch fort which has been reduced to just a vine-covered bell tower over the years.
Several liters of sweat eastward, we visit a monastery with murals and statues detailing various chronological events in Buddha’s life. My dad and I learn a great deal about Buddhism, and are welcomed by the monks and caretakers. There, a separate building also houses several displays detailing Sri Lankan history, presumably for the young monks’ benefit. Atop this museum, a stupa sits largely neglected, but provides for a solemn space to witness the monastery grounds. Before we leave, we visit an ice cream truck and are turned away as the truck is only there for the students. For modesty, it also only has vanilla ice cream, which we happily would have bought on this tropical day.
Our final Sri Lankan pilgrimage is to St. Sebastian’s Church still two blocks further east, past a video store that specializes in Sinhalese- and Tamil-dubbed movies. Men and women with guns smile and brush us in at the entrance. Chock it up to white privilege, as everyone else gets searched in this entrance to the site of another Easter bombing. The entire congregation inside is renovated, save a few square feet where shrapnel has torn into the drywall, and Catholics of every skin tone pray, cry, or look around like tourists with virtuous purpose. The sunlight makes this a more joyous place than St. Anthony’s, but I still feel like a child after a funeral when we visit Dinemore several blocks away. The Sri Lankan Friendly’s help us shield the ugly parts of this world. Sure, there is death, discrimination, and mass-murder. But there’s also hot fudge and ice cream.
Just the Facts
You may have friends who have visited--or desperately want to visit--the slowly disappearing 12,000-island nation of the Maldives. How can 12,000 islands disappear, you ask? Great question. The highest point in the entire country is 14 feet above sea level and, “sea level” being more of an average than a set height in this age of global warming, it seems incredibly likely that the generations of Maldivians to come may not remember their original homeland, seeing as the government has recently bought up land in India to indefinitely relocate the nation of 430,000, should their twenty-two atolls flood permanently.
Tourists to the Maldives generally book stays at all-inclusive island resorts with food and alcohol, snorkeling and diving. It likely does not even need to be said, but this is not the “real Maldives.” According to federal law, four of my absolute favorite things are banned: booze, bibles, porn, and pork. If you haven’t guessed yet, let me be the one to tell you that this island paradise is a strictly Muslim country. This excites me more than the beaches, though I can’t wait to get some sun and sand then sprawl out with a cold non-alcoholic juice drink.
That’s right, I intend to avoid the resort islands like the plague. I owe it to you, dearest reader, to avoid wasting time and money on Club Med and the like, and explore Maldives for what it truly is: a beautiful Muslim nation with rich culture, incredible food, and unique tourist opportunities outside the myriad resorts. Let us go and make our visit.
Air, Land, and Sea
After a night sleeping in Kochi airport in Kerala, India, my father and I take a short flight into Male. That is, we take a flight into Hulhule, an island composed of a runway and airport terminal, sandwiched between Male and another mainly residential island. The flight demographics are mostly people headed to private islands, clad in bathing suits and sun hats. As we pass immigration and the arrival hall, sun hats disappear, and hijaabs become abundant as the tourists flee on private charters to their resorts. We have arrived.
The next step is to take the Male ferry, which runs us about one U.S. dollar in local currency. The two-minute cruise through crystal-clear waters minimizes sweat with an island wind. The long, skinny ferry is nearly full of locals who just got off their shifts at the airport and are heading home. When we touch down in the northwest corner of the island of Male, we realize we will have to walk the entire distance of the island to get to our hotel. It remains hot and my dad is looking sweaty and tired, but Male is hardly a mile at each end, so we have confidence we can survive the heat and get a better idea of Maldivian, or “Dhivehi”, daily life in the process. Strolling along the mile-long stretch of docks and ferries, we witness food and goods being transferred to the capital in real time from the hundreds of skiffs at the northern shore. I also notice that there are an incredible number of hardware stores, almost one on every block, likely due to the endless construction that is being done on this densely-populated island and on the thousands of boats that service it. Hardly any space is wasted, and cars are rare. Most people ride humming motorcycles, behind which scarves flap in the wind. After drifting through a local fruit market, we arrive at acclaimed breakfast spot Jazz Cafe where we order Dhivehi specialty mas huni, made from local tuna, coconut, and dried spicy chilis. We are also given circular tortilla-like roshi with eggs. Without a doubt, it is one of the best breakfasts I have eaten since the beginning of my travels this summer, and a recipe I plan to bring home with me.
After breakfast, we walk the remaining distance to our capsule hotel. This is the first time I get to sleep inside one, and I cannot wait to get a private room, even if it’s barely the size of a coffin. We are a few hours shy of check-in, so we stow our bags in vacant lockers and change into our bathing suits. It is time to visit the beach, though a quick Google search reveals that Male’s public beach is on the other end of the island, from whence we just walked. However, we find that another boat terminal, one much closer to our ‘nap’sules, operates regular ferries to nearby Villingili island. I want to see as much of the country as I can, so we hop on the next available boat.
Hardly two hundred people inhabit Villingili, but all the necessities are there. Twenty minutes’ walk reveals a new mosque, a couple of general stores, an ice cream shop, and a couple of fishing and diving outfits for the scarce tourists who find themselves in Male pursuing an underwater adventure. We came for the beach, but we buy a couple cups of ice cream before submerging ourselves in the crystal blue waters a stone’s throw from the ferry terminal. When we fear we are burning, we recoil into the shadows of a restaurant that caters to the ferry crowd, ordering juice cocktails and watching ferry after ferry come and go. Check-in doesn’t start for another hour… time to relax.
Time to Leave the Napsule… If You Dare
A catch-up siesta the day after an all-night travel binge is likely one of the great pleasures of the road. In my spaceship pod I press buttons trying to cool the box down, but the temperature on the hi-tech display keeps rising into the thirties. That’s centigrade, mind you. I only cool the white plastic and stainless steel casket by opening the hatch slightly. The room lets in cool air despite the inevitable Atlantis steaming outside.
We don’t know it yet, but we will spend this only Malean night circumnavigating the island, first taking the northern avenue to the artificial beach on the east coast, where families bob under football stadium lights. Hijaabi moms toss volleyballs to kids like some wholesome advertisement for making your serotonin-addled kids spend quality time with you and less time playing video games. It is night, everyone is there, and yet the night is tranquil. Either no one believes this country’s drowning, or they chose not to think about it. There is hope. There is a future. It just might not be here.
Tropical sweat and another 90-degree sector of hiking pushes us into an empty pizza house across the street from a mosque in the middle of the evening adhan. A few people shuffle out for a quick prayer, but we help ourselves to drinks in the fridge while we wait for the restaurant to be staffed to full capacity again. We down our drinks and grab the check before returning to our sleep pods.
Male to Hulhumale
Well-rested, it is time to get the most out of this nation’s capital before beginning our journey to the airport. We start our morning at a six-dollar all-you can eat buffet featuring local fruits, omelettes, and pastries, though I mostly just stuff myself with more mas huni. Next, we venture to the National Museum of the Maldives, which far exceeds expectations. As a chronic sufferer of museum fatigue, there are truly very few museums on this earth that I would recommend, and much fewer that I would recommend visitors explore in their entirety. The Maldivian National Museum, though far from comprehensive, weaves together four or five somewhat unrelated exhibits that capture insights into Maldivian history, but also into customs, language, policing practices, and general maritime knowledge. In two densely-packed exhibition floors, I learn about the Dhivehi alphabet (and it’s relation to Arabic), see the full skeleton of a particular type of whale that has never been seen alive, and view an artfully-crafted sculpture depicting the precise moment after a bomb had been detonated in a Male park in 2007. The sheer scope of what the museum covers is beyond impressive, given the museum’s size, and in an extremely rewarding way feels as though the space is being curated by several different people all with their own separate expertise and area of interest.
Next, we stop by the Maldivian president’s gingerbread house of a place and visit the small national library before catching a ferry to Hulhumale. Much less densely populated than the capital, this is where many of the workers live as several highrises, as well as several more under construction, support the largely non-Maldivian tourism sector. We find it hard to believe that this country, set to be underwater, is still building new apartments and trying to get tourists to visit. “Perhaps this is an exit strategy,” I wonder. I imagine the nation knows that their exodus to India will put an end to tourism, at least on the scale they have now, so by raising as much capital as they can, Maldivians will be able to invest in new industries and on constructing their new country across the Laccadive Sea.
Hulhumale, despite being residential, is lined with miles of vacant beach just beyond an eight-foot sea wall. My dad and I float until we feel our skin reddening like steamed crustaceans, then we find a cafe in which to score mid-afternoon “short eats,” the local name for snacks. There, I also use the toilet hose to wash off my sandy feet, and use the WiFi to catch up on blogging. Before our late flight to Sri Lanka, we pop into a tandoori restaurant serving up everything from stir fry to pizza to Indian food. Our American stomachs combined with our exploratory sensibilities form a compromise and we order the tandoori chicken pizza. It comes late, to the point that we are biting our nails out of the anxiety of not making our flight, and also for the potential nutritional value inherent to keratin and cuticles. The pizza finally arrives, and we eat the entire thing despite the lack of flavor. I pay quickly and we head to the bus stop to catch the airport shuttle. We miss the first, but thankfully they run every thirty minutes, 24/7, except for a 1-hour prayer-break on Fridays. As I wait, I wonder if the guy who works the hour-shorter shift on Fridays feels he gets stiffed an extra hour of pay, or rejoices at being able to get out of work early to go to the mosque.
Our flight to Delhi takes us to the same terminal where I started my trans-sub-continental expedition several weeks before. Thankfully, my father and my visas are valid for multiple entries, saving us some money on our bonus day in India’s capital. It's a shame our layover has to be here of all places. Not only have I already spent a week in Delhi this month, but there are so many other cities I wish I had time enough to explore in this gigantic nation, ones that are hopefully cleaner and less likely to give me something suspiciously close to Dengue fever.
A short Uber ride from the airport brings us to the Qutub Minar complex, comprised of minarets, mausoleums, and other impressively well-preserved stone structures from the Mughal era. Compared to the Taj Mahal, this local historic site is far less crowded, much more spacious, and surprisingly comprehensive. The various constructions highlight beliefs and the living history from virtually the entire Mughal era. I am no history buff, but here you do not have to be. I witness the sheer scale of some of the buildings and am impressed by the ability of these works to withstand the trials of several centuries' progress. We stand a tenth of a mile from the nearest metro stop, in a city that has virtually always been bustling, always been building, and practically always been some level of nauseating. Needless to say, there is no fecal matter of uncertain origin inside Qutub Minar. The lawns are well-manicured, and only one security guard tries to take our picture, only to tell us he “works for tips” after he perfectly captures my dad's good spot whilst standing below an arch. My father notifies tells the guard that he won’t be tipping him as that is not “the way he does business.” He strolls away with a smirk that can only come from feeling like one has righted some small wrong. India has changed us.
We stop for a long, air-conditioned lunch at RDX, a modern tandoori restaurant that specializes in skewered meats. We order their sampler platter, and at the first bite I am overwhelmed with nostalgia. The Portuguese would call it saudade: the emotion of longing for something that may or may not return. I think back to when I was younger--just emerging from my picky chicken-nuggets-and-macaroni years--and I first tried the nuclear chicken tender borne of the tandoors of so many Indian kitchens in the U.S. While lunch at RDX conjures up these memories, it also rewrites them a little, glossing over my childhood with it's own reddish pink tandoori tinge. The chicken here is juicy, dark, and melts in your mouth. Until now, all I had eaten were dry chicken breasts coated so brightly with red spices that is would take three days of nail-nibbling before my hands returned to their pale color. Here, the chicken is flavorful but not cartoonishly red. I can eat with my hands without tattooing myself in temporary vermilion.
How can I love both these meals, when one is so clearly the better cooking method? A crisis of nostalgia is born. Should we keep eating our childhood favorite foods, be they tandoori chicken or a bite of a madeleine, if we know they can never be exactly the same? Sure, there is always the familiarity that drives us for a bite of mom’s apple (or, in my mom’s case, key lime) pie at every family gathering, but most foods we like as kids are not our favorites as adults because we try new things and find we enjoy these new foods much more. Not to mention, as we change and our tastes adapt we usually becoming less choosy. Does this mean our time and appetite are better spent trying new things, rather than fall into the routines into which nostalgia goads us?
Anyway, I guess what I’m trying to say is that it was really good chicken. Afterward, we catch a flight south to Kochi, where we spend the night curled up in sofa forts, awaiting our early-morning flight to the Maldives.
The bright sun shines into the immigration hall, where we first need to purchase visas before gaining access to Nepal. Applying for a visa on arrival at Tribhuvan Airport in Kathmandu is easy. We simply wait in line for one of the kiosks, where we fill out our visa applications and submit them electronically. Next, we head to the payment counter to exchange our money for a visa sticker, which looks like it could have been made using Microsoft Powerpoint.
I take that back, it is a nice sticker, I am just upset because the border control agent uses up an entire page--when he easily could have just used half--when he affixes the sticker. We leave and this Uberless nation forces us to negotiate a fare with an actual cab driver. At least we think he is a cab driver. When we get him down to 600 Rupees (5 bucks) for the drive to our hotel, he shows us to a car with a driver already inside and hops into the passenger seat himself. Over the drive, he reveals that he is not a cab driver, but the owner of a local travel company. In other words, he is drumming up business of the out-of-town-tourist type by pitching to captive audiences in exchange for lower cab fares. I happily take his number, with hopes that we can use this off-season lull to catch a tour up to Tibet, but it becomes clear that trips to Tibet are more than just 4-hour car rides north, as Google Maps says it will be. After Nepal’s earthquake some years ago, your best way into Tibet from Kathmandu is a private chopper or commercial flight to Lhasa. As budget backpacker/blogger, I elect to remain in Kathmandu for the predetermined stretch of four days.
Our driver and de facto guide also mentions that Gai Jatra, a festival that both celebrates cows and the remembrance of the dead lost in the past year, will be taking place in the city, and recommends we check it out as he drops us in front of our hostel. After leaving our bags on our beds on the top of the 10-story walk-up, we do some shopping and ultimately join the parade of mourning Hindus converging on Durbar Square, the center of the festivities.
Though many are clearly lamenting the losses of loved ones, and some have even had T-shirts made with the name of the dead, the parade is also one big party. Kids dressed as lions are given candy and fruit, and large drums are beaten powerfully as masked men dance and flail. Flags of Nepal fly, and people are smiling, greeting each other as if to say it’s been awhile. From there we make a quick stop for momo, an authentic Himalayan dumpling, before arriving at Buddhist Swayambhunath stupa, known colloquially as the ‘monkey temple’ for the many small primates residing near the stupa’s path. The path leads up a steep hill, and my father and I take regular ‘monkey-watching’ breaks to hide our exhaustion from one another. One would think that climbing to the Tiger’s Nest would get us both in shape. As it turns out, exercise is not something you can do once a year and expect to reap the benefits.
What a scam.
After an evening dinner of vegetarian dal bhat, composed of small cups of curries with a large helping of rice, I sleep well despite a hundred-pound comforter that presses down on me like a panini press, yet still allows flesh-access for Kathmandu’s mosquito population. This is the penthouse hostel for which I paid six whole dollars. Despite obvious drawbacks, I can easily steal WiFi from the neighbors up here, and this four-day retreat in urban Nepal is starting to look like a great time to fall back into my early teenage habits of binging a Netflix show and forswearing normal society in favor of the digital.
Losing My Religion
The following day is spent in pursuit of the noble goals of catching up on blogging, and watching the entire first season of Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Spotty rain showers keep me focused, at least on the latter goal, and by the evening I am ready to hit the town. My dad, who has mentally recovered from his college years, wants to bar-hop, sample cheap beers and just generally treat the Kathmandu Valley as if it the Napa Valley. Since I have hardly recovered from my college years as an English-business major, I want to get drunk quickly, get drunk cheaply and--once drunk--I want to start considering life’s biggest questions like “who cleans up all the shit in the monkey temple?” and “how is my dad somehow less clumsy when he’s drinking?” After a warm-up beer in a reggae bar, I buy a dollar-pint of apple schnapps and a Mountain Dew, due to the unavailability of virtually every other mixer, and consume both bottles with my dad in our hostel lobby before heading to a nearby music venue and bar called “Purple Haze.”
We witness an impressive set performed by a local band, and are joined midway through by two men we had met at the reggae bar before. My dad begins chatting with them. They reveal they are Nepalese, but worked for the English military and now reside in Britain. My dad asks, half joking, if they were gurkhas, the elite Nepalese military unit recruited perhaps most notably by the English for operations in the Falklands and Afghanistan. One of our drinking buddies nods , and my dad is instantly starstruck at the idea of bar-hopping with who he believes to be some of the world’s deadliest men. I had only just heard of the gurkhas for the first time the day before, when I tried a Nepalese beer named after them. It was a little too harsh for my tastes. Kind of like an IPA.
The first band dismounts the stage, and the two international assassins and my dad decide to go to another bar. A few beers and most of a bottle of apple-flavored liquor convinces me that this night will surely end in some kind of adventure, so the ex-gurkhas take us to their friend’s place a few blocks away. I assume the joint will be some vets-only spot where only the toughest are allowed to enter, but we breeze past the bouncer who hardly seems to notice we are there. The bartender is chatting with her friend, and as we enter the main room we realize there is nobody there except for the band, strumming mostly American rock and folk songs to absolutely no one. Despite the empty room, they’re killing it. I take tiny, constant sips of my beer while I listen to the music, only taking a break to sing the entirety of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I am the only one to sing along, while my dad goes into his thing about retiring, teaching coding, and travelling to fill the gaps. The gurkhas apologize for the empty bar and ask to pay for our drinks. My dad, instead, pays for their drinks for their service, though since they are paid mercenaries from Nepal, enlisted into Britain’s ranks, it is debatable as to whether we have any obligation to give our thanks. Or if our thanks is even wanted, for that matter. Evidently it is, though, because they accept the beers and bit us good night as the band plays their last song. Before the neighborhood of Thamel shuts down for the night, my dad and I split a large cone of french fries at a nearby fast food stand. I sleep and sleep well.
Birthdays, Deathdays, and All the Days Between
At approximately too early in the morning, the lone major site we have yet to visit still looms on the sunward horizon. Shree Pashupatinath is a temple and cremation site in the far part of Kathmandu, near the airport. Signs line the entrance, advertising this is a “no begging zone” as it seems that acts of charity really kill the religious vibe for some people. Admittedly, my nerves are calmed by this posting. Some days, beggars, scammers, and pushy peddlers are the only people I meet on this subcontinent and—though I am certainly a complete asshole for saying it—this really puts a damper on the trip and negatively affects the way I view these countries.
Of course, I am of the view that those in need should be helped, and we should be the ones to help them. There is nothing wrong with charity, or helping someone when they are down on their luck. And the arguments that “it’s the government’s job to take care of its people,” or that “these people should work to make money, not beg or badger good people” are particularly lame ones. Some of these countries have so much less opportunity, so much less support, than countries in the west that the only morally right answer is to give to those in need. In a country where most people have to scrap to stay alive, I shouldn’t be outraged when someone tries to con me, but the systemic song-and-dance of “where are you going?” and “where are you from?” is like getting your headphones knocked out of your ear or stubbing your toe. Once is annoying, but five times in a row can be frustrating, bordering on infuriating.
Beyond the “no beggars” sign, we buy our tickets and are approached by a man with a tour guide license around his neck. This scam is common in the region. People start showing you around, taking pictures for you, or sharing facts about the site and then demand payment. They all have a lanyard displaying their ID inside, and it seems unclear as to whether they work there or not. They never do, however, and their dubious IDs quite likely come from some print shop, or else can be purchased by anyone for a few rupees from the tourism board. Regardless, we take our walk with the man, who gives entertaining, and somewhat graphic, explanations of Hindu beliefs and values. Much more upsetting, however, are the human remains placed on platforms by the river below, either waiting to be cremated or placed on pyres, wafting skyward in real time. As the air fills with smoke, family members mill about. Few are grieving the loss, and most just look bored, annoyed they have to spend the entire day inhaling their dead relatives. Our guide explains that, sometimes, people in comas will be placed on the pyre, and will come alive when roasted over a medium-high heat.
“They cannot be saved,” he relates. “If they suddenly come back to life, they are witches, and must be burned anyhow.”
Next, we are introduced to a few men doused in orange, red and white paint, sitting on a ledge, cross-legged. Castrated at early ages to live unhindered by base sexual desires, they sit all day meditating and asking the higher powers for things that regular people cannot, in exchange for food money as they not allowed to do normal work. They give us bindis and perform rituals wishing us happiness and peace, then ask for a thousand rupees when we stand up to leave. Neither of us have a thousand, so we each give around fifty. As we walk away, our “guide” explains people “usually do as they say for fear of having a curse put on them.”
If they had told me about the curse before, I surely would have complied, but there are no ATMs wedged between the funeral pyres. When our guide requests an additional thousand rupees from each of us at the tour’s end, my father explains with a touch of bitterness and sarcasm, that he can’t pay the full amount, and that the guide should have told us about the pricing before rather than show up and just start guiding us.
The longer I think about it, the more I realize everyone in this story deserves to be cursed.
At night, which is the same day’s morning back in Connecticut, my mom is waking up to her sixtieth birthday. My dad and I call her from a restaurant in the heart of Kathmandu where we have to point to what we want on the menu, as the waiter speaks no English. For those thinking I’ve gone off the deep end, gushing at the romantic nature of my twisted, destinationless pilgrimage note this: no matter how far I wander, no matter where I go, I cannot outrun Ed Sheeran. Throughout our phone call, the greatest hits of the Irish crooner serenade us with songs we both got sick of years ago and I wonder if I will ever find a place beyond his influence. I am glad to hear my mother is well. She is eager to join the two of us in Japan the following week, and happy to relay some details about the wedding of one of my cousins, which I unfortunately had to miss while traveling through India. We fall asleep early as we have an early flight the following day.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.