Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Strike

We arrived at the Nepal border around noon on March 12th and after a painless visa-on-arrival process, found ourselves in the middle of an open-ended, regional, general strike. Hotels were open but most other businesses were closed. Buses and taxis were not running. The only available mode of transportation was bicycle rickshaw.

Our original plan was to cross the border, take the local bus 4 kms to Bhiarawa, then 22km to Lumbini, the Buddha's birthplace, stay 2 nights in Lumbini and continue by bus to Royal Chitwan Park where we were scheduled to meet up with friends. Now, no buses and the rickshaw drivers wanted, commanded, 500 Nepali rupees (10 times the normal bus fare) to carry us and our bags one way to Lumbini. Another option was to take a bicycle rickshaw 25 kms north to Butwal where we could then catch a bus to Pokhara, but that meant skipping Lumbini.

The locals told us the strike was in it's 10th day and was confirmed to last at least 2 more days. They also said that it was a bad idea to go to Chitwan Park as several policemen had been killed in that area during the strike. After some deliberation, we decided to spend the night in Bhiarawa and day trip by rickshaw to Lumbini on the 13th and go on to Pokhara on the 14th - no Chitwan for now.

We found a nice hotel. The next objective was to find an Internet cafe and email our friends to meet us in Pokhara, not Chitwan. Walked out of the hotel and strolled around town. It's quiet as there are no buses, trucks, or cars; only the occasional motorbike. The bicycle rickshaw drivers are feeling good as business is booming at inflated prices and cruise by us asking "Lumbini?", "Butwal?", "Where you want to go?".

Most of the stores are closed or have their doors just half open. We don't see single restaurant that's open so we eat at a noodle stand - 4 plates of veg fried noodles at 10 NRs each. We see a few other travelers and chat with them, hoping to get some information. A pair of Polish women are quite jovial. They are part of a group that has charted a bus and are off tomorrow morning to either Pokhara or Kathmandu. They invite us to ride along with them - "It's a big bus".

Eventually we find an Internet cafe that's open. Woohoo! The connection is good and Sun-Ling is able to "chat" with our friend and it is agreed to meet in Pokhara on the 15th. This cafe also sells phone SIM cards and we fill out some forms, hand over one passport photo and 516 Nepali Rupees (NRs) and we are mobile. Woohoo again! After tanking up on more fried noodles we head back to the hotel and call it a day.

To make a long story short. On the 13th we hired a bicycle rickshaw for 700 NRs to take us the 22kms to Lumbini, wait for 3 hours, and return; a trip we will never forget. And on the 14th we hired a rickshaw to take us and our bags 25 slightly uphill kms to Butwal where we caught a bus to Pokhara, arriving at 7:00 PM. On the 15th we met up with our friends. The strike ended on the 16th.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

TV: India vs China

Indian TV is amazing. We stay at very average places that do not solely cater to international visitors. Usually one third of the 30 to 60 channels are in English and most of the time there are three movie channels including HBO (same brand, different programming, I think), not to mention the movie channels in the local languages. Indians love movies. What's surprising is that a lot of the time we also get American channels that we know and love, such as History, Travel and Living, and National Geographic channels. They feel familiar yet weird, since we have not regularly watched TV for the last 6 years.

This is a far cry from China. Traveling in China we stay in the same class of hotels as in India, maybe lower, since hotel standards are higher in China. Though the TV sets are invariably better, the programming is dismal. If we are lucky, maybe one quarter of the time, we get the sole government run English language channel CCTV 9. Since all media is state controlled, all programs sprout the same party propaganda. Every now and then I would try to catch some local news on the Chinese language channels, but invariably I would be so disgusted by the same slogan that I grew up with;e.g., "Follow ___'s lead, uphold ____ principles ...." I end up clicking off the TV in frustration, cursing. Though CCTV 9 is only slightly more tolerable, when we do get it, I am glad of the change and watch in earnest, I have stooped so low.

When we were traveling in China last spring, TV was all about the Olympic torch relay, in excruciating detail; e.g.,which big wigs waited at the airport, the plane lands, so-and-so steps out and waves at the crowd.... Then the Tibetan protests happened. Happy Tibetans fill the screen....life is so much better now compared to under Dalai Lama....ungrateful Tibetans. All dissenting Chinese language sites were blocked on the Internet. English languages sites seemed to be censored less. We were glad when the earthquake happened -- I don't really mean that, not for the people -- as we thought we would finally see some real news. What a mistake! All we saw was the government troupes and officials leading the rescue efforts, and lines of people dropping 100 yuan notes into collection boxes. There was hardly any "disaster" coverage; that is, the destruction, the damage, and the dead. I could go on ranting, but it depresses me too much.

Another thing we noticed is that Indian TV commercials actually look like commercials to us, not that much different than the ones in the US. On the other hand Chinese TV commercials are so bland and cutesy, one would think we are still living in the 1950s. It's no wonder China is the only country in the civilized world where the young are turning to the Internet for entertainment more than the TV.

Playa del Carmen, Mexico

From Aguascalientes, there is a very convenient direct flight to Cancun.  Since the wedding is at a private beach south of Playa del Carmen,...