Monday, November 28, 2011

field guide to hungary #2 :: metro

the subway in budapest is called metro. it crisscrosses the city, there are metro stations everywhere. it goes under the danube. it serves as a bomb shelter. it's where homeless get warm. it was the first underground in europe. and it is now one of the few reminders of how things looked in communist hungary. my favorite station: moscow square.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

a blissful moment :: nepal

nepal in many ways reminded me of india, yet the two countries couldn't be more different. kathmandu is a big bustling city, with air so polluted that i quickly bought a mask, still my nose was black on the inside and my eyes burning after a few hours of walking around. there are no traffic rules and according to the locals all you need is "a good horn, good brakes and good luck". visiting the temples is a complete sensory overload, devotees praying and spinning the prayer wheels, monks chanting, birds singing, dogs (there are thousands of them) playing and chasing each other, monkeys jumping from one buddha statue to an other with their babies on their backs and eating all the offerings in the shrines, kids running all over, music from all direction, vendors selling everything from food to tourist novelties, top this with the beautiful buddha statues and all the colors and smells - so much to take in.

trekking in the himalayas was the complete opposite - the serenity is beyond anything i have experienced. the small villages that i walked through seemed to have stopped in time, the night sky was packed with more stars than i thought was possible. the huge peaks covered in snow in the distance that would become visible time to time humble you as you realize how small you are. in a buddhist monastery i sat in on a prayer session and as the monks were chanting and praying, for a few moments i was transported to a spiritual peace and happiness that was completely unfamiliar, where everything from my daily life disappeared and i only existed in the present that seemed to be eternal - i understood why people would want to pursue this feeling of bliss all the time. but modern time has not escaped these monasteries either, i noticed some of the young monks playing games and texting on their mobile phones.

leaving nepal was rather unusual. the maoist staged a huge demonstration and started a general strike. the whole country literally shut down, not a car on the road, not a store open, nobody on the streets except tens of thousands of maoist rebels with sticks and machetes and red flags marching. at 6am, i was put on a bus full of completely bent out of shape tourists and about 5 armed guards. we drove through the city as the only car, surrounded by the maoist - faces looking into the the window with anger and resentment, as we represented the "privileged class" they fight against. i felt like i was in an action movie, where we are driven out of a war zone... it was pretty unsettling I must admit. luckily we made it to the airport without incident and got home safely.

i took this trip last year and i'm ready to head back, this time to trek to everest basecamp. i can't wait to revisit some of the monasteries on the way, perhaps i'll find peace again for a few moments.

Friday, November 18, 2011

field guide to hungary #1

i'm excited to introduce a new segment on the blog, "field guide to hungary". ever since i left 22 years ago, going back is always a special treat. in these installments i will try to share the way i see hungary, this small country in the middle of europe. i hope you'll enjoy the posts.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

good morning vietnam

my plan in vietnam was to make my way from hanoi in the north to saigon in the south while stopping along the way, then visit the mekong delta before spending a few days in saigon. it sounded like a great plan. little did i know that an unseasonal monsoon rain would flood whole towns and make some of the otherwise lovely scenery practically invisible. the sky didn't clear for 10 days straight, and the phrase "pouring buckets" took on a whole new meaning. but even the pouring rain couldn't take away from the magic of ha long bay, sailing through the limestone rock formations and islands felt like i was on a pirate boat ready to battle the dragons behind the next bend.

further south, through the sheets of rain i caught glimpses of the country side, beautiful lush hillsides and rice fields as far as i could see. walking through the jungle in the rain, the air was heavy with heat and humidity and at times breathing became difficult. in the mekong delta, the family i stayed with proudly recounted how the grandfather fought the americans and received their villa and field as a thank you gift from the government. it was taken away from one of the south vietnamese families. my hosts didn't know what happened to the original family. while the family couldn't have been nicer and more hospitable, i felt awkward and wondered how many americans and south vietnamese the grandfather had killed. interestingly they didn't seem to care that i was american.

eventually the clouds lifted, but by this time i was in saigon, or as it's called today ho chi minh city. it couldn't be more different from hanoi. hanoi felt cool and measured, whereas i saw saigon as friendly, full of energy, bustling with life. staying at the meticulously restored majestic hotel was a special treat, it's old world charm recounted colonial splendor. i happily soaked up the sun, ate as much pho as i could and more, visited all the sights and had cocktails on rooftop bars while watching the sunsets.

the first thing i did when i got home was re-read graham green's book the quiet american. this time, each page came alive as it had never before. it's impossible to travel in vietnam as an american and not imagine what the war was like. the american war, as the vietnamese call it. it’s been a year since this trip, i’m ready to give the north an other chance, among other things i would love to visit the sappa region and perhaps hanoi deserves an other chance as well.