Sunday, March 13, 2011

Squat Toilets

            There has never been something more frustrating to a Westerner than the squat toilet. In many third-world bathrooms, it would appear as if the whole bowl retracted downward, laying flush with the floor, two obvious foot placements, and, well, nothing else. I have heard stories of Westerners downing anti-diarrhea pills just so they wouldn’t find a need for a bathroom, or teachers at poorer schools struggling through hours of bladder pain and then hobbling home just to use a euro-style loo.
            At times, western toilets gleam like porcelain thrones compared to some in Nairobi, Kathmandu, or your pick of distant outpost. But, many in our world leave much to be desired. For example, any bar bathroom on any busy night anywhere (especially the ladies). However, even the most pristine squat toilet leaves travelers quivering at the thought and slightly bloated when bypassed.
            What is it about them? Is it a belief that it represents a regression to our more animalistic times? As advanced peoples, we use thumbs, automobiles, and sit when we shit? Then again many decide to “hover” when confronted with any latrine that isn’t theirs.
            Yet, think what one is faced with when using our sit toilets for the first time. In many cultures, the bottom of the feet and left hand are considered dirty, much because of their contact in the bathroom. So then to place ones bare ass where one usually puts his feet, following all the other bare asses that came before his, must appall at the very least.
            Not only have we raised the porcelain two feet to our bottoms, but we’ve added the comforts of comfy seats, soft lighting, air fresheners, and reading material all for what purpose? To prolong our stay in our own toilets? Are we insane? We spend more time in our bathrooms than any other culture. Why? Comfort? With that smell! Solitude? Only if no one else is banging down the door to get in.
            So earlier this evening as I squat in my Nepali toilet- no light, a wretched smell, and baby wipes balanced precariously on my knee- I thought: What is stranger? That we have gone to great lengths to make our bathrooms more enjoyable for longer stays or that in some toilets one squats?

The inability to multi-task in a squat toilet, may stand as its main fault and reason for the rise of its western counterpart. The squat toilet prevents all multi-tasking, even in its primary usage. As a man, I’ve always relished my ability to write my name in the snow in different fonts, but this also requires direction and control. However, when in a squat toilet, fending to hold ones pants above the squalid floor, direction and control are gone. And like an uncontrolled firehose, it goes everywhere, including the ruin of my ego.

Bryan Adams: Live in Nepal

            Few of us ever have the chance to be part of history; a truly extraordinary event or happening that will stand out in the annals of time. Of course, this may be because few of us seize the opportunity when it arises.  But, for me traveling is about forming your own personal history, experiencing the mundane in new ways that will be relived in memories over and over. And then sometimes a confluence of events brings you to a moment when your personal history will involve one of those significant times, such as the first western concert played in Nepal- Bryan Adams: Live from Nepal.
            When I first landed in Kathmandu, billboards and posters touting the Canadian rockers arrival inundated me everywhere I looked. Standing larger than the surrounding Himalayas, Bryan Adams lashed his guitar, inviting everyone with the money to bridge the gap between the West and Nepal. As a reporter in the local paper surmised, western musicians bypassed Nepal for the richer environs of India. Nepali people could not even afford the real CDs, relying on black market copies, much less spend the money on a concert that would make it worthwhile for a multi-millionaire talent to play.
            In celebration of Nepal’s Year of Tourism, organizers convinced Adams to add Nepal as a final stop on a tour through all of the neighboring countries.  Even though we were scheduled to depart Kathmandu for our volunteer assignments, a few of us decided that seeing the man responsible for such middle-school dance classics as “Summer of’69” and “Everything I Do” was something not to be missed.
            The buzz accompanying the concert reached a fever pitch the days before February 19th. The English-language paper dedicated an entire page to Adams, printing an extensive biography, trivia, and the lyrics to one song everyday the weeks before he played. His songs seemed to infiltrate the play lists of every bar we drank at. And, locals seemed to think that every Westerner had arrived especially for the big event. Indeed, I too, thought the same.
            I did not know what to expect. It would be my first big concert in a third-world country. And in all his cheesy glory, I did know what kind of show Adams would put on. Would he make the mistake of yelling, “Hello Bangladesh” or would he have it written on the back of his guitar, as an aging rocker with one too many shows under his belt might?
            As we began the 45-minute walk from the tourist area of Thamel to the national stadium, the crowd joining us grew more and more, but remained calm in its excitement. Our group kept splitting up, but on the whole westerners seem to be much taller than Nepali people. Mitch, a 6’3 white Australian in a white hoody, stood out, much like a 6’3 white guy in a white hoody in Nepal would.
            At the stadium the crowd broke into lines corresponding to their respective sections: Gold, Silver, or Bronze. The tickets for the show, giant embossed and laminated showstoppers, did little to inform which direction to take. Instead, we relied on a few helpful Nepali and shoved our way into whatever line moved fastest. Over 6000 police stood guard throughout the stadium, an impressive number considering only 25000 tickets were issued and it was after all only Bryan Adams. For a little while, I wondered if the Canadian singer might be able to insight a riot or maybe even topple a government.
At the gate water bottles were taken from us and we were patted down for the usual weapons that connect with mellow rock. Inside, giant banners proclaimed, “We love you Bryan but oppose alcohol promotion,” a nice contrast to the hundreds of billboards with Adams’ likeness next to a giant size bottle of McDowell’s #1Whiskey.  Of course, the whole concert turned out to be dry and not in just an alcoholic sense, but a “we got you Bryan Adams and now you want water?”
Getting into our section took even longer than the lines outside the stadium. A large group of police in riot gear formed a barrier to the one small door thousands needed to pass through. To maintain order, several policemen held long poles at about waste level, causing people to perform a type of limbo move to get under and then randomly collapsing down on a poor soul to slow the line. As the pushing and shoving intensified, I felt an angry mood swelling in all of us. For a moment, I considered rushing the tiny policemen, but then the potential for a Lilliputian outcome seemed high. And how do you explain to your mother that you were arrested at the concert of a man that probably played her prom?
            Luckily, a somewhat important looking man signaled for us to come forward, but we weren't spared the limbo move or some convenient grabs the girls later informed me. If any future western rock stars play Nepal, bring crowd control.
            The national stadium of Nepal does not evoke the grandeur of the west, but in its dilapidated form remained quaint and a perfect setting for a smallish stage and 25,000 willing fans. The difference shown brightly, as a stage man walked the cross beam of the stage lighting sans safety equipment. This is Nepal.
            The opening Nepali bands brought a rockus cheer from the crowd when they laid into their hits, though each seemed to be an extremely slow type of music. Including Namaste, which its hoarse voice belted a reggae melody while his band played a form of lounge jazz. Keeping the crowd entertained, the two emcees promised Adams would soon be coming. I found this moment the most telling, considering that in America, such a statement might elicit boos and threats if the performer was not already there, but in Nepal, the reaction appeared more like a mass of children awaiting Santa’s arrival- building excitement.
            When Adams finally took the stage, we were pushed forward in a small wave of Nepali people. The crowd seared with pleasure as he launched into a song featuring Kathmandu (you’ll have to excuse my inept Bryan Adams knowledge). One fan screamed the lyrics of the first few songs into my ears. The screen behind the stage filled with Adams’ image and the stadium erupted as if seeing him again for the first time.
            Not knowing any of the songs, my feet hurting, and my mind and liver still wondering why this concert was dry, I couldn’t say I was really enjoying myself. It was a spectacle all right, but I had only come for moment of it. And then the first chords rang out. Summer of ’69 ignited the Nepali just liked I hoped- ferociously.  Thousands of cell phones dotted the dark venue; many taping, others just the 21-century equivalent of the lighter. I punched a friend’s number into mine and yelled, “this is only birthday present you’ll ever get from me: Bryan Adams- Live in Nepal.”           

Friday, February 18, 2011

Well that was an easy trip...

Finally, I’m here, with just a few minor delays en route. When I began planning this excursion, I inserted a layover in London to visit an old friend before heading off to Nepal. Like many past trips, nothing went right and I found myself relying on an even “older” friend to rescue me. Without the help of Becks, I would have never experienced Clapham North and the well-deserved hangover that an unplanned Saturday night there brings.
As I stood in Terminal 3 of London’s Heathrow Airport, sucking down my 14th bottle of water, I was content knowing that the exhaustion would surely lead to a long sleep and, after a short stop in Abu Dhabi; I would soon be in Nepal. However, that did not happen.
When the plane landed in Abu Dhabi, I had not slept more than 30 minutes in total. Bleary eyed, I wondered around the terminal looking for water and hoping that we would start boarding soon. In a shop I found water running at three dinars a bottle. When I went to the ATM, the screen read that the minimum withdrawal stood at 100 dinars. Was I really willing to pay 30 dollars for a bottle of water, thinking I would never return here. It was only a moment before I pressed accept, when I overheard the clerk asking a woman whether she wanted to pay in Euros or pounds. I reached into by pocket and fished out one last sterling coin, worth 5 dinars. Jackpot!
Cold water in hand and a feeling of luck beginning, I walked to the gate to listen to the Etihad representative tell us that the plane had succumb to mechanical difficulties and the airline was searching for a new one.
After a few hours of waiting, the airline decided to put us up in a hotel for the night. Many of the passengers panicked, raising their voices that they needed to make it to where ever now. I, on the other hand, couldn’t care less and just wanted a bed. The creeping tiredness began to take its toll, leaving me with slits for eyes and the faintest comprehension of what was actually going on.
Abu Dhabi, from what I can recall, is just a group of hotels and a tunnel that goes from one place to another. Also, there seemed to be a lot of sand. By the time, I had woken from a dreamless sleep in my 7000 thread count sheets surrounded by more pillows than I knew what to do with, night had descended over the city. During the earlier ordeal, I had met a young English guy named Tom. We had agreed to meet for dinner, and considering it Valentine’s Day, he turned out to be a wonderful date.
When you travel for the mere enjoyment of being on the road, you delight when company appears that shares the same sentiment. That is Tom. He had spent 7 years living in China, Japan, South Korea, and Italy. Teaching English to support himself, he loved the idea of immersing into a culture and soaking it all in. Later this summer, he planned to marry his Spanish fiancé, and now sat sharing an apple-flavored sashis, a middle-eastern smoking pipe similar to a hooka, with me on the lawn of the Abu Dhabi Crowne Plaza. We exchanged stories about our travels and laughed about some of our more hysterical traveling companions. Neither of us had been to Nepal and we did not talk too much about what we expected. As the day had proven, expectations are worthless.
The next morning, the flight to Kathmandu finally took off and even landed. The airport sits stop a small plateau. Unlike the modern terminals of the past three airports, Kathmandu’s low -lung brick building appeared quaint and perfect. Inside the foreigners cued to arrange visas in a haphazard manner. I found Tom assisting another traveler with the application in Japanese. An older man holding an Italian passport, asked, “You speak Japanese too?” Tom smiled.  Once in line, he chatted with a woman and her elderly mother about his favorite streets foods in some province…in Chinese. I waited for a Korean to begin a conversation on the merits of the DNZ with him, but I was let down.  His display left my one proficient language and ability to sort of curse in a couple of others tongues, sadly humbled.
Tom and I wished each other well and hoped that our paths would cross again. I stepped out of the airport into a throng of taxi men and a repeating chorus of: “My friend, my friend.” My phone didn’t work and I only had the name and neighborhood of my guesthouse. But, it’s okay; all my new friends surrounded me as the adventure continues…

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Here we go again...


“Next time, know the exact address you’re staying at. Ok?” the female immigration officer said in a kind, but authoritative tone.
“Are you kidding?” I thought to myself, keeping an innocent and ignorant smile. Five hours and fifty minutes before, Delta Flight 148 took off from JFK in New York. With stronger than expected tail winds, we would be arriving an hour earlier than scheduled. Shit. I needed that hour to attempt sleep. Three hours before the flight departed, I arrived to an empty departure hall, late on a Friday evening.  A deep freeze had set into the Northeast, but I chose to leave my jacket in the car. I was after all only going to Nepal, home to the Himalayas, and a daytime temperature of 70 degrees.  Wondering the duty-free stores and fast food chains, I waited clutching my cell phone. Two hours before then, I had received a dreaded email from the friend I had planned to spend the weekend with: “Stuck in Madrid for the weekend. Sorry. Do you know anyone else in London?”
Never plan. It won’t work.
Of course, I know other people in London. There are the two ex-girlfriends; both who would enjoy promising me a place and then sending me to random addresses as payback for, well, everything. But, alas, I knew there were a few souls that if I worded the plea just right (HELP! I’m stuck!), would worry that such an obvious karmic ploy would strike them down if they were to leave me out.
And then Becks the Rockstar answered! I had not seen her in years, and an occasional chat on Facebook was our only communication in the meantime.  When her message came though, my neck released all the tension that a possible 36-hour stay in London’s Heathrow Airport could build. 
In the broken language of international texting, directions came through as: Take tube from Heathrow to Green Park, then take Victoria line to Stockwell, then Northern line to Clapham North. Call me when you’re there.
Three thousand miles later and an hour earlier than I had expected, I stood before the immigration lady explaining that I was staying in Claphan North. I did not know if this was an actual neighborhood, or just the name of a London Underground station. Either seemed appropriate, I was after all homeless and at the mercy of another's charity. Why not call a subway station home for the night?
As I left the officer and her warning, I cursed planning. Maybe hours ahead, not days, forget weeks, and certainly never months. Day 1 done, an hour ahead of schedule.