On Feb. 27, a dozen years to the day that I moved to Colorado Springs to help found the Independent, I took off for an adventure to Hong Kong, India, Nepal, mainland China and New Zealand.
While I spent a lot of solo time reading 17 books, my treasured memories are of the locals, as well as of fellow travelers I stumbled across. When you're traveling, relationships are intense and energizing. It's just plain exciting to experience how people from all over the world can be so different and yet so similar.
Well over half of the adventure travelers I hung out with were German, English or Irish. I have no idea why so many came from just these three nations, or why there were so few American travelers. Here we are, the richest nation on earth, and less than 15 percent of native-born Americans even have passports.
Eating yak liver
My treasured place: Jamburi, Nepal, a farm community of 500 souls in the foothills (10,000 feet) of the Himalayas, on the Indian-Nepali border. This adventure began in northeastern India via a 1989 Land Rover in Darjeeling. We started out with nine passengers, but kept picking up people until there were 18 adults and six kids -- five in the front seat, seven in the middle seat and six in the back area (including me), three holding onto the back and three on the roof -- sitting on luggage and sacks of potatoes and onions while holding live chickens. After being dropped off in the market town of Maneybhanjyang, I hiked for two days up an amazing trail to Jamburi.
I just fell in love with the village. On clear days, you felt you could touch Kanchenjunga, the world's third-highest mountain at 28,156 feet, with Everest visible 100 miles away.
I spent a week teaching English, geography and math in a one-room elementary school (17 kids, two teachers), ate yak liver, milked goats (hard to do) and lived in a community created a half-century ago by Tibetan refugees fleeing Chinese harassment. I watched two kid goats being born and played with dozens of such recent arrivals. Nothing is as wonderful as watching kid goats wobble-run, butt heads and do their funny twist jump.
I rented a room with a farm family for $3 a day. Only their 16-year-old daughter spoke English. Her name was so complicated, I called her JJ. She was home on holiday from her boarding school in Darjeeling, which, like all schools run by the Dalai Lama, largely is taught in English.
While the surroundings were idyllic, the village was full of Peyton Place intrigue and everyone wanted to tell me who had done what to whom. The stories, from seduction to water politics, would make great plots for a TV miniseries.
Some other highlights:
Rafting, hiking and camping by India's holy Ganges River, north of Rishikesh. Amazing river, people, sparkling sand.
The Yangshuo/Xing Ping region of China, featuring thousands of massive, 300- to 2000-foot limestone lumpity-humps that looked like creations of Dr. Seuss.
New Zealand's spectacular countryside. Crystal clear air, amazing night skies. Hiking and kayaking, with oceans and beaches as fresh as I imagine America's wilderness was 150 years ago.
When traveling, I had many "Ah-ha" moments. For example, 90 percent of the toilets in New Zealand have two flush buttons: one for a full load, one for just a one-third-tank flush. They've had this water-saving process for decades. Why the heck don't we have something like this in arid Colorado?
In New Zealand, there is no tipping. Waiters get paid a salary. Taxi drivers do not expect a gratuity. The Kiwis (and Irish) I met thought our system created subservient and unprofessional employees.
Also in New Zealand, taxes were included in the marked price of all goods. For example, restaurant menu prices included tax. Ditto for items in all shops, car rentals and hotels -- just like we do for gas or airplane tickets. Kiwis thought our system of adding tax at the checkout counter was confusing and deceptive.
Real-life video game
My biggest surprises were in India.
When I arrived in downtown Delhi around 3 a.m., everything was totally calm and quiet. Hours later, I was afraid to go more than two blocks from my hotel. Not only were there the worst smells imaginable, but narrow streets swarming with folks playing chicken, all going at very different speeds, with pedestrians, bicycle rickshaws, tuk-tuks (motorized tricycle cabs), mopeds, motorcycles, car taxis, overloaded trucks, overloaded buses, overloaded cars, hand-pulled pushcarts, overloaded carts pulled by teams of water buffalo or camels, and even one elephant dodging oblivious cows and sleeping dogs. It felt like a video game with real-life consequences.
As far as I can tell, here are India's rules of the road:
Vehicles with the most mass have the right of way.
Every 10 seconds or so, beep your loud horn.
Yellow lines and one-way streets are just suggestions.
Never disturb cows. They wander everywhere and are oblivious to everything. As they eat grass or garbage with their butts in the road everyone just swerves around them.
After 24 hours in Delhi, I went from being completely overwhelmed to feeling normal navigating the streets, just marveling and accepting the smells, colors, dirt, and tent villages next to amazing temples. After you've seen one snake charmer or five people (three adults and two kids) whizzing past on a motorcycle with no helmets, the second and third times cease to amaze.
One thing that kept fascinating me was the multitude of very human-looking monkeys -- the squirrels of India -- hanging out in trees or beside the road.
Another surprise was that the air in Delhi is fairly clean. In the 1990s, this city of more than 12 million converted all cabs, trucks, tuk-tuks, buses and most other vehicles to natural gas. American cities with smog problems should do the same. The savings in healthcare expenditures alone dwarf the cost of conversion.
While Delhi's air is fairly clean, there is discarded junk, papers, garbage and plastic everywhere.
Some surprises from China:
Amazing irrigation ditches made of beautiful flagstone, miles long, brought river water to vast numbers of rice and vegetable fields. They looked 1,000 years old, and perhaps were.
On several highways, trees had been planted every 10 feet on both sides of the road. The lowest four feet of the tree trunks then were painted white, creating elegant, cheap guardrails that also provided shade, looked nice and protected pedestrians and bicyclists from vehicle traffic.
I also was amazed by how some Chinese balance huge loads on 5-foot poles, with half the load in front and half in back.
Thing of the past
In New Zealand, I spent time with several Green Party organizers. A decade ago, the Green Party helped launch a national referendum that switched the winner-take-all system of elections to a complicated Mixed Member Proportional electoral system, where any party that gets 5 percent of the national vote gets seats in Parliament. As a result, New Zealand has gone from two viable political parties to seven in its 120-seat Parliament. No single party has an outright majority. The Greens, who won 7 percent in the past election, have nine seats. The Libertarian Party holds eight seats. One Libertarian organizer I met at a pub was all excited "about that wonderful law you have in Colorado called TABOR!"
A depressing and recurring surprise was how many fellow travelers, as well as both rural and urban locals that befriended me, were just plain outraged and distraught by President Bush's unilateralism, his lies about WMD and the reasons for the war, America's family planning mandates, the Kyoto accord, and our selling of arms to dictators. The goodwill Americans used to enjoy is a thing of the past.
One wonderful aspect of my trip was having no landline, no cell phone, no laptop, no budgets, no employees, no civic stuff, no consulting gigs, no house to maintain, no car to drive, and even no kids to raise. For the first time in a dozen years, I felt calm and relaxed. Wherever I went, there were no demands. I did not know anyone. And better yet, no one knew me.
-- John Weiss
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