Saturday, June 12, 2004

Eerie bird experience

I just drew an ink sketch of the black bird--probably a crow--that whirred over my head in Thamel on my first day in Kathmandu. It flew up from behind me, whooshed low over my head & then abruptly landed on a brick stoop a few feet in front of me. This actual siting of a bird in close proximity *outdoors* occurred about 45 minutes to an hour after hearing the fast flutter of birdwings next to my ear while I stood in my small 2nd floor hotel room at the Mont Blanc Guesthouse. I *heard* the flutter and also *felt* the swoosh as if a bird or bat had just blazed past the side of my head. It was so close (the sound, the feel) that I quickly dove to the floor in panic. Seconds later, I peered all around my room, thinking to spot the/a winged creature. I saw nothing & even checked under the bedside table and in the folds of the window curtains for the flying object. Nothing found. It took me a minute to compose myself; I am not a paranoid person, but I am convinced that "something" fluttered near me in my room momentarily.

Of course, this kind of experience is precisely what I welcomed on my expatriate path. In this magical kingdom.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Greeted by throngs at Tribhuvan Airport

Though the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu is used by thousands of international travelers wanting to revel in KTM's famous atmosphere or aiming for higher-elevation experiences in the Himalayas, the amenities and lay-out of the lobby and gateways is pretty rustic and lowbrow. It surprises me how surprised I am that any "work" can get done in a "third world" structure (say in Mexico or in Nepal, as I've now seen) that lacks air conditioning, wall-to-wall carpeting, plush waiting area furnishings, and the scent of efficient corporate bureaucracy (akin to new car smell, if you get what I mean). Well, I had that feeling of incredulity walking through this hallowed building, which has seen the likes of folks such as Sting, the Fab 4, and an assortment of now-famous Everest expeditioners passing through its archaic turnstiles. But, work *does* get done in the KTM airport: checking and stamping of passports, basically. Most folks arriving in KTM usually have one bag--a backpack--so a high-tech system that hoists luggage from aircraft to airport terminal is not really necessary. You appreciate right away how scaled down, how simple things are gonna be in this country, er, kingdom. Yes, there's a king and queen here, and framed colored photos of them--smiling benignly--are everywhere, including the airport.

I lifted my bags to my shoulders, strode through the final corridor to the exit doors, breathing in the reality of the situation. Then, the frenzy begins.

As I exited the airport, I was greeted by a screaming crowd of Nepalese: taxi drivers, porters, hotel reps, rickshaw drivers. All of them male, all of them waving their arms and/or signs wildly, and all of them hellbent on your American dollars. I'd say there were about 200 people there, mid-afternoon, trying to eke out a tourist dollar living. Overwhelmed as I was by the din of this outburst, I knew I had an out. You see, my good friend Mary (who'd lived in KTM through the mid-1980s) had hooked me up with a Nepali family who owned a car and had agreed to meet me at the airport for a direct ride to the hotel of their suggestion. So all I had to do was stand back, away from the frenetic crowd, and scour the waving arms for a glimpse of a sign with my name on it. And there it was: WELCOME TO TIMAL ADV TREK TAMMY GOMEZ USA MR. BACCHU TAMANG.

Wow. Not the first time and not the last that I've walked willfully towards a person to whom I was entrusting my little life. Bacchu, Thulo, and Dhan--of the Tamang clan--reached for me with handshakes and warm grins. I felt like family had come to greet me. They quickly took my bags and led me safely away from the now-pressing crowd of men who didn't want to give up making a sell. Thulo took his place behind the wheel, of a nice jeep-type vehicle, while I climbed into the back seat w/ Bacchu. Dhan was very quiet, but Bacchu pressed me with questions in remarkably strong English. Thulo drove through the thick traffic like a pro, as I marveled at how closely we cruised past cart-pushers, bicyclists, moped-ers, pedestrians, and other cars. In some cases, we were less than 10 inches away from someone walking parallel to us. You could see the sweatdrops on people in the next car. It was hot, but it was dry--for the moment. And color, tints of every imaginable bright color, surrounded me right and left. It was an explosion of brightness, and I believe my eyes had never feasted so heartily in one immense moment.

Bacchu announced names of streets and regions of the city, some of which rang familiar (from all the preparatory reading I'd done), but mostly I just absorbed the sounds and smells, which almost equalled the intensity of the eye candy. The guys told me that I was to lodge at the Mont Blanc (famous Swiss peak, as I recall--many tourist hotels and restaurants have mountain-y or mountain-climber-related names) guesthouse in the legendary Thamel section of the city. Yeah, whatever, is what I felt. I had no basis for disagreeing with these sweet and friendly guys. I checked in at the front desk, insisting on paying for one night's lodging ONLY (hate being locked into anything). The Tamang guys walked me up the stairs to my second-floor room, depositing my baggage and taking their leave after reminding me to contact them if I had the slightest need or question.

"Mala" = garland of flowers. Did I mention that the Tamang guys presented me with a beautiful, hand-made mala of fresh flowers upon greeting me at the airport?

Did I mention that the Royal Thai Airline attendants gave each disembarking passenger a fresh orchid upon arrival in Kathmandu?

Did I mention that I felt as if in a flowery dream in that first hour of touch-down in Nepal?

Thursday, June 10, 2004

June 10th, 1999 - first day of monsoon

Now, how to tell about my arrival in KTM? Well, as we were cruising in over eastern Nepal towards the KTM Tribhuvan Airport, it was about 2 or 3 in the afternoon and the skies were perfectly clear. The number of passengers on-board had decreased significantly since our stops in Tokyo and Bangkok. On the Bangkok to Nepal leg of this journey, it seemed that there were fewer than fifty people on-board. For us first-timers, the giddy-factor kicked in and we unbuckled our lapbelts to cavort among the empty rows of seats, dashing from window to window to catch glimpses of the Himalayan kingdom at high altitude. Of course, I had unspoken hopes of spotting Everest.

As the Royal Thai Airline (ah, what style, what service!) attendants glided around, preparing things for landing, they seemed to condone our childlike scrambling to and fro. A good thing. Cuz you couldn't have hitched me to my seat for nothing. Bummer, though, that it was an airline policy (does this apply to all airlines?) that in-flight photos of Nepal could not be taken from the aircraft cabin. As a soft backdrop to the thrill and momentous swirl of our imminent landing, the flight attendants turned up the volume on the easy listening passenger cabin ambient music. "Moon River" is what was playing as we coasted onto the KTM Airport tarmac. Lump in my throat, smile on my face, that song became the perfect welcoming melody for me.

I grabbed my carry-ons and dashed down the aisle. After 15+ hours in airports and airplanes, I needed to touch ground. I was ready to meet Nepal.

Terminal Bliss

8:37am Bangkok International Airport. In the bathroom stall, doing my thing, I am stunned to hear the faint melody coming over the p.a. system. In between announcements of imminent flight arrivals & missing passengers, I hear a strings-and-piano instrumental version of none other than "Tammy's in Love." No lie. I take this as a very good sign.

I've been awake since 6:15 am (Thai Time), before which time I'd laid myself out in my newly-stitched body bag (er, sleep sack). I had parked myself near the other snoozing adults (I was the lone female among them) on the green carpeted children's playground area. My head was next to the bottom of the hard plastic slide. I slept all right, I guess, for 2 hours or so. But I feel good now. When I awoke, it was only then that I noticed the sign above the children's playground area (posted twice in full view): THIS AREA IS ONLY DESIGNATED AS CHILDREN'S PLAYGROUND. SLEEPING IN THIS AREA IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED. Ah, sweet ignorance, sleepy Tammy.

I leave Bangkok in less than 3 hours.

Interesting note: I found 3 books about or by Aung San Suu Kyi (Burmese Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and one of my favorite heroes) in the transit lounge news shop & bookstore. I am impressed that her wisdom and life story, as recounted in books, is apparently popular reading in Thailand. Maybe I'll get one of these books on my trip back to the States.

Homeless in Bangkok

I am very happy. Here in the transit lounge area of the Bangkok International Airport. I sip on a can of Singha beer (Thai) & a bag of Thai barbecue-flavored chips called INALM or INATM. I am the transient traveler, and I feel happy. It is quiet here at 12:20 am (Thai Time) and I am alone. No one knows me here; I owe them nothing & they owe me nothing. I feel free and light. Today, I am a shopping cart lady w/ 2 carry-ons. The little metal pushcarts are free to use here, so I've planted Mary's (hastily lent to me at the last minute in FW) Land's End bag and the canvas bag containing my high-end electronics, which I haven't even used yet. I sit here, feeling light, relaxed, and pretty rested, having just removed my hiking boots (been wearing them for 12+ hours) & put on my velcro-strapped black sandals. Hmmmm. My feet feel better. I thought of the following people: Julia Apodaca (hey, Julia, I made it to Thailand!); Elsie Escheverri-Carroll (thanks for the $20 check & the wonderful farewell drinking ritual w/ David on Julia's back porch electric clothes dryer!). Elsie, you wouldn't believe this place & how relaxed I feel. Then I thought of Patricia Greene because I saw her look-a-like walk past me a few minutes ago. Dear Patricia, with her thick thick Spanish accent. Great artist & travel-reveler. I am happy for her example & I am comforted by thoughts of her sashaying down concourse after concourse in foreign airports from Mexico to Iceland. Thank you, Patricia! I almost wrote a poem for you: "Ponte p'aya."

Then I thought of Mark Gee and about how he once told me a dream he'd had. It took place in the future: I was homeless on the streets, seemingly content & well-cared for. As I'd heard him talk, I remembered shuddering to think that I might end up on the streets, destitute and forlorn. But now, as I sit happily in the town furthest from Texas that I've even ever been, I know that I *am* that homeless (jobless, carless, husbandless, credit cardless) woman now. Maybe, it now occurs to me, Mark was merely dreaming of my life as a solo adventuress, traveling the outskirts of my home continent. This is the best way to be homeless, traveling by choice, alone y unfettered. No wonder I have felt so "wind" lately, my Libran air tendencies increasing in volume to make me feel spacey and largely disengaged from the material rat race world. I am so lucky knowing folks who would & could house me in a heartbeat from Vermont to Chicago to Denver to Dallas to GTO (Mexico) and New Orleans. This is a very positive, supportive feeling to have. This homeless lady actually has many welcoming arms in many homes in many places. Thank you, Mark, for sharing your premonitory dream with me...I hope *you* are content now.

DREAM -- I woke up towards the latter part of the Tokyo to Bangkok trip, on the plane, rather abruptly. I woke from a dream about a pathological murderess. The details have unfortunately evaporated, but it was a weird dream. Thankfully, it did not leave a bad afterbite w/ me when I jerked awake on the plane.

I've finished my beer. Now I must get to my sleep sack; the stitching must continue so I finish the sack before getting to KTM.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

It is June 9th and I am in mid-air

Arrive Tokyo. 5:45pm (approx.). Unforeseen stop for me. I recall no dreams from sleeptime during LAX (Los Angeles International Airport) to Tokyo leg of this trip. I feel somewhat rested, though I know it would now be bedtime for me in Fort Worth (FW) or Austin (1:30am approx.). I like it here--Tokyo airport. Gentle voices speak directions and reminders via overhead speakers. Thankfully, there are English translations for some of these announcements. I notice a wonderful sense of relaxation & comfort here among the Asians in the airport. I am happy (once more) to be small y brown; I blend in pretty easily. I soon consider what it would be like to live here. I like the idea. At a terminal gift shop, I find an excellent English-Japanese dictionary. I'd like to know the Japanese language, I decide all of a sudden. I giggle softly reading the labels on other gift shop items: "water on lip" for lip balm in the travel supplies section of the concourse kiosk. "feelin' good" was the label for a neck pillow. Hmmm, I wonder what the exchange rate is? Every announcement on the p.a. system is preceded by a "magic wand" tinkerbell melody, so sweet and lilting. I notice no jarring sounds here. But they (airport personnel) took my pair of scissors, during one security check stop, deeming it a "security item." (The scissors were in my backpack, cuz I was planning to use them for sewing my sleepsack out of a bedsheet.) Oh well, I didn't plan on making paper dolls on the plane anyway. I should be able to get them (scissors) back in Bangkok or KTM (Kathmandu). Why will it take 5.5 hours to get to Bangkok from Tokyo? I don't get it. I guess that's okay, cuz I'm on this trip to learn. A few things. Oh hell, I left my beautiful Royal Thai Airline menu in my seatback pocket. It was the most gorgeous menu card I've ever seen, and the actual meals I ordered from it were amazingly scrumptious. Sea bass & noodles last night and spinach cannelloni w/ veggies this morning--er, afternoon. And the drink service was non-stop. Tea? Coffee? Water? Mango juice? Wine? Cocktails? Brandy? It was neverending. I saw 2 movies on the in-flight monitor: a silly, predictable NYC film called "Just the Ticket" and "Shakespeare in Love" (fourth time to see this one). Tammy in transit...

Getting Informed

In the months before departing for Nepal, which also included prerequisite time waiting for a BIG check, I spent many hours chatting with my great friend Mary Evans about Nepal. She'd lived there for about 10 years, jumping ship (the Heraclitus) in India and falling in love with the subcontinent and ending up in Kathmandu. Mary had developed many kinships with artists, writers, and performers there and therefore had endless amounts of advice and information to share. She really hooked me up w/ great leads and directions.

I also spent many hours online, hanging out on the ASIA: INDIAN SUBCONTINENT branch of the THORN TREE TRAVEL FORUM, which is so helpfully hosted on the LONELY PLANET website. The first-hand accounts and tidbits of advice offered by travelers in this forum were incredibly useful and helped me construct a better mental image and attitude of what was to come on MY trip. Go check out this wonderful link if you have designs on kicking the hometown dust off your shoes and getting out for a trip:

As soon as I got the word out that I was going to Nepal, EVERYbody seemed to know SOMEbody who'd been there. And so the info-flow increased incrementally, day by day, as emails and phone messages poured in. I am eternally grateful to everyone who shared with me during that intense time of info-collecting. My acquaintance, Zeek, became my closer friend, because he had recently been to Kathmandu. We spent hours together one day, talking endlessly about Nepal; he even gave me his first aid kit leftovers to take with me.

I got some shots (Hep A, DT, IVP) and bought some anti-malaria medicine. I even visited with the folks at the International Travel Clinic at the Tarrant County Health Department. You hardly realize what cool resources are made available by the county, state, and gov, until you're in a position to be curiously seeking them.

Sending me off - quotes from friends and supporters

As quoted in the Austin Chronicle "Postscripts" section (spring 1999):
"And now it's time to say goodbye to one of Austin's premier slam (or otherwise) poets, Tammy Gomez, who needs to 'try some other terrain': Nepal, where she's going for about three or four months, should do the trick."

From farewell letter written by Irma Andrade:

"Spontaneity. You proved it can make a difference. Even if it's for a small portion of your life. It's starting to show. I can tell you how I see the difference in you, but I'd rather keep it to myself. I'll let my eyes do the telling. It's good to hear you rekindle a relationship with freedom. I believe it's this freedom within yourself that allows you to love and care for yourself. So, I know you'll be okay. --What am I gonna do when you're gone? Miss you with all my heart, that I know."

Handwritten card given to me by my then 5-year old niece:

Dear Tammy: I wonder what the mountain look like? I think it is white. I wish I can go with you but I have plenty of stuff to do. I am going to miss you. Love, Breanna