At the Moonlight Guesthouse
Exactly 20 years ago I was living in Nepal. Mostly I lived Kathmandu, in a hilly neighborhood called Baluwater, but by the end of October 1996, I’d be back in Burque for good.
There are embassies in that part of the capital of Nepal and government residences too. A long and broad boulevard lined with palm trees marked the western boundary of mi vecino. The palm trees were filled with dates and big fruit bats that had faces like little brown dogs.
The Chinese Embassy and the Mexican Consulate were just a few doors up the street, and the vast estate housing the Prime Minister and his family took up most of the lower end of the area where I lived.
Across from my apartment there was a beer shop that offered ice-cold liters of San Miguel Beer and packets of Triple 5 cigarettes. A huge marijuana plant took up a quarter of my front yard, which was otherwise filled with marigolds and crab grass. I shared the place with a British friend of mine who worked for the Nepali government.
On October 1, 1996, after little preparation and training, we took a flight on Trident Airlines to Pokhara, a small city on the edge of the Himalayan Mountains. There’s a trail there that follows the Kali Ghandaki River up a steep valley to a mountain outpost named Jomsom. After spending the night at the Shamrock Hotel in Pokhara, we decided to fly to Jomsom in an old Soviet Helicopter that had metal buckets for seats.
From Jomsom there was a trail up into the mountains. At about 9400 feet in elevation, hikers could choose to bear west into the Kingdom of Mustang on the edge of the Tibet or head east, away from the river toward the Thorung La pass at about 17,000 feet.
It was cold and windy in Jomsom (elevation 9000 feet) when we arrived in the late afternoon. Somehow the environs seemed barren yet fertile at the same time. The terraced hillsides on either side of the valley were cultivated with apples, buckwheat, lentils and marijuana.
The valley was surrounded by unimaginably huge mountains; years later I have difficulty comprehending how big and looming they really were. There was an army outpost at the edge of town and down by the river was a bank and the travelers’ lodge where Jimi Hendrix supposedly stayed in the late 1960s.
Yaks as big as cars and donkeys decorated with bells roamed through the cobblestone streets, shaking their heads. They were pulling loads of beer, flour, cheese and bottled water up the trail and toward Lo Manthang or Lhasa. Twenty years ago, there was little motorized transport and no paved roads in the area; merchants and pilgrims had traversed the trail following the Kali Gandaki into Tibet on foot or by hoof for centuries though.
After wandering around the place for about an hour, my friend and I took rooms at an inn called the Moonlight Guesthouse because there was a sign out front saying they served the best burritos and apple pie on the Annapurna Circuit.
My room was spartan with whitewashed walls and a small bed, table and oil lamp in the corner. To this day, I like to keep my room at home like the one I had in Jomsom; plain with no decorations and comforting in its simple attestation to the need for rest.
That night I dined on a burrito of yak cheese and lentils that had been folded into a tortilla made from a sort of buckwheat fry bread. It was decent fare all right, but the cooks at the moonlight lodge didn’t have any chile. When I asked after some sort of piquant salsa, one of them told me there was a can of tomato sauce somewhere in the kitchen; they had given up on spaghetti night a few years back because travelers didn’t fancy the buckwheat noodles on offer.
So the slice of apple pie that followed the highlight of my meal and I could’ve eaten the whole pastry, but I didn’t want to give my American identity away. Afterwards a band of Tibetan immigrants came around and played music while we smoked hashish out of a long pipe made from a water buffalo horn.
We stayed in Jomsom two days because it was so damn inviting there; there was a small museum housing a photographic history of the region as well as ammonite fossils—believed by many Hindus to be divine objects—found along parts of the nearby river bed. An enclave of German agriculture experts living on a hillside south of town could talk for hours about the apples, buckwheat and cannabis they were studying while working to introduce methods that would enhance traditional practices and increase crop yields. Jomsom was a bright, windy place—a point of transition and intersection located at the very edge of the world.
On the third day I checked the maps, flashlights and shoes, calibrated my lensatic compass and carefully loaded my pack and sleeping bag. On the way out an older, tanned Swiss man approached and asked if we needed a porter or guide, wondering if we had the proper permits to continue. I produced two government issued cards. My friend told him we were going to go it alone. He looked over his glasses at me and shook his head. And we walked away from Jomsom headed for the mountains.
Next Time: Kagbeni and Muktinath
Mexico City's Alpha Status
Today I push off from the Sunport and land in Distrito Federal AKA Mexico City, Cuidad de Mexico.
My mother, my sister and a rando at the gym immediately warned me of dangers. Murder, rape, muggings, they stressed, are what awaited me in Mexico. Yet, the world's fourth largest city in population, and, in 2015, the world's twelfth largest urban area, actually has lower crime rates per capita then Philadelphia, a place no one ever took the time to warn me away from when I was young and, consequently I have lasting regrets about mistakes made there circa 2010.
Other people, the aggressive, defensive kind that get really upset when they hear that someone who isn't trying to have a conversation with them about it has decided to abstain from eating meat, eggs and dairy have, at other moments, warned that I will, get ready ... "starve." While I have relaxed some dietary choices when traveling abroad, and may do so again, in a city of 20 million people, I'm going to posit that I won't actually starve. In fact, just Sunday the L.A. Times featured a story about the abundance of explicitly vegan taquerias, restaurants, street food stalls and bakeries in Mexico City. In the megapolis I can go to a dairy free ice cream shop and get all my groceries at a vegan market, which is more than any city I've ever lived in in the US has offered.
And more than that, Mexico's so-called Alpha City has an abundance of parks, museums, markets and surely so much more that I don't even know about that will make ten days feel like two.
Only slightly higher in elevation than Albuquerque, this time of year D.F.'s weather is comparable to ours and there's not even a time change to impede my transition into full on vacation mode, only a layover in Dallas.
These are all suppositions, aside from the cold, hard statistics. Barring death by starvation or murder, I'll report (rub it in?) in coming weeks, ten pounds heavier from vegan tortas, totally broke not from being robbed, but because I'm sending a million postcards.
NY Times reviews Albuquerque ...
... and mostly gets it right.
The article came out in today’s travel section and is part of the “36 hours in ...” series. It appeared online on Thursday, Oct. 20.
Writer Zora O’Neill picked up on spots well-loved by the Alibi and its readers.
She suggests folks visit Parq Central, Golden Crown Panaderia, Marble (winner of Best Beer Bar in this year’s Best of Burque Restaurants), Ezra’s Place, Stevie’s Happy Bikes, Mary and Tito’s (winner of Best Red Chile in this year’s poll), the Church of Beethoven and Los Poblanos.
That’s a pretty good list. Don’t worry: She also gets to stalwarts such as Frontier, the Balloon Fiesta, the Bosque, the KiMo and the trolley.
O’Neill mentions that the sprawl is intimidating to travelers—an overlooked point in the argument for infill. She also makes a point of talking about Albuquerque’s “vibrant organic movement.” The Alibi’s food section has been emphasizing that unusual aspect of our desert city since early summer.
Dune surfing. Couch surfing.
Late Sunday night found my roommate and I sitting on top of a dune in White Sands National Monument with an English couple we'd met earlier that morning. We'd lent them a tent, dropped their backpacks at our house and set out for a five-hour road trip through southwestern New Mexico. Bring a swimsuit for Elephant Butte Lake, we said, and a sleeping bag.
As bizarre as it was for my roommate and I to find ourselves camping with strangers, it was stranger for Julia and Fen who had started the day at Einstein Bagels without a plan.
Such is the beauty of CouchSurfing.org, a global nonprofit network connecting travelers with locals. The network encompasses more than 230 countries and three million members.
Each surfer (or surfer-couple) creates a profile describing their interests, goals, travel stories and pictures. Travelers send out messages asking if they can crash on a couch during their time in a city. Some people host every week, others only do so occasionally. No money changes hands, although it's considered polite to offer a bottle of wine or a home-cooked meal.
It takes a lot of trust to open your doors to a stranger or to spend the night on a foreign couch, so the network has set up a series of verification practices. The site confirms a member's name and address but the community relies on hosts and surfers vouching for each other. Perhaps the leap of faith is that the person you connect with will be someone with whom you want to spend a couple hours or even days.
While the four of us lounged on the marshmallow frosting dunes, we discussed the unusual circumstances that brought us together. Perhaps all CouchSurfers share a willingness to be spontaneous in the search for adventure—even if it means journeying deep into a 275-square-mile desert with strangers.
Reporting from the tracks
It’s a Wednesday morning, and the New Mexico Rail Runner Express presents a smorgasbord of snacking children, camera flashes, gimmicky tourist cowboy hats and the unmistakable crinkling sounds of unfolded, then refolded, maps. A handful of bowed head locals immerse themselves in the faint glow of a laptop screen, but the average age of rider seems to be about seven.
We leave the city and pass mobile homes, parking lots of eighteen-wheelers and neat stacks of bricks and cement blocks waiting for transport. A cluster of horses snooze under the shade of a lone tree, and a shirtless older man pushes a wheelbarrow through the hay brown fields.
The train jostles past the snarled mess of mangled electronics at the dump before gliding sweetly past white linens hanging on a laundry line. Shrubs like cotton balls dot the twisting mesas and low hills.
Eventually the buzz of just-boarded passengers dies down to a reasonable murmur. I sit back in the red canvas seat and settle in to research the budget deficit facing this train.
The Rio Metro Regional Transit District Board voted on June 17 to eliminate weekend train service, starting at the end of August. They also plan to replace the early morning northbound and southbound trains with a bus service due to the limited number of pre-dawn commuters.
The schedule changes reflect an attempt to alleviate the $1.2 million budget shortfall this year. Since the train was completed in 2008, it received federal money labeled Congestion Mitigation Air Quality Funds. The funds’ three year expiration date just passed, leaving us to grapple with serious deficit.
Attempts to raise fares have met with resistance since part of the train’s appeal lies in its laughably cheap ticket cost. With my student ID, I paid $6 for a round trip. That’s only half the cost for lunch in Santa Fe.
Personally I love the ease, convenience and affordability the train offers and will continue to ride it as long as it’s around. Plus, I could never have written this article on I-25.
London In Detail
The highest resolution picture ever taken of a major city has been posted online. The London Gigapixel Project took six weeks to complete using high tech computer software and “a powerful Fujitsu Celsius workstation with dual 6-core CPUs, 192GB of RAM, and a 4GB graphics card.” The resulting image is made from 7,886 high-resolution individual photos, adding up to an incredible 80 billion pixels. Allegedly, the creators at 360cities.net had to Photoshop out a woman who was standing in her window naked, but other than that, the image is untouched. The interactive website allows you to move around and zoom in like mad. Quite the vacation photo!
John Bear gets nuked
A road trip to the Trinity Site
I went to the Trinity Site on Saturday.
The Trinity Site is the spot in the desert southeast of Socorro where scientists first demonstrated – in the beautiful desert no less – they could compress a ball of plutonium or uranium into a critical mass, causing a nuclear explosion. The United States would later demonstrate that such a device can turn people into star dust. Twice.
The site is only open to the public twice a year. I couldn't help but notice that the desert seems to have swallowed whatever was once there. There was some trinitite, greenish glass created by a fission bomb, but mostly just sand. Of course, the radiation levels are much higher than the surrounding area, but I was assured that they weren't anything to be afraid of. Still, holding radioactive glass wreaked havoc on my OCD. I am abundantly aware of my left hand as I write this.
One thing I noticed: When I travel into the desert, I am often overwhelmed with a sense of otherworldliness. The desert is a mystical place and I love to bask in it.
But it does not exist at the Trinity Site. The government nuked the mystical mysticism. I was at least expecting the feeling I got at the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial, the sense that something horrible happened here. But nothing. The absence of any profound feeling is scary.
So the government killed the magic and the desert ate the tourist attraction. My boots are still covered in radioactive dust and I appear to be growing a sixth toe on my left foot. Freaky.
An Evening in Taos
Two weeks ago, because we didn’t strike out for Califor-nah-ay this summer as planned, my husband and I opted to take a regional vacation and went to Taos instead. Despite having lived in New Mexico for most of 11 years, I’d never been. I was excited to see the metaphysical mountain town, and experience its fabled vortexes firsthand. The two-hour drive from Albuquerque was quick and pretty, and the road into town took us directly to our accommodations for the evening. Not so long ago I attained a half-price one-night stay at the Historic Taos Inn through Alibi Bucks—not because I’m thrifty, but because boutique and/or historic hotels are one of my great joys in life. The couches of friends are fine, but when given an option, I’ll take Ace, Kimpton or Hotel Congress-type lodging any day.
As soon as we arrived at the Taos Inn we felt free and easy, and distinctly on vacation. The grounds were manicured and easy to navigate, and a friendly Tom cat even greeted us with a mewl. We made our way to the front desk and upon checking in were given real, metal keys to a room in the Sandoval House portion of the Inn. Our room, which was flanked by greenery and an antique water fountain, was well-appointed, and furnished with cozy New Mexican-style decor. A kiva fireplace sat dormant in the corner, coaxing us into return in the winter.
It was already about sunset, and the Adobe Bar beaconed us. The bar’s boozeverages were delicious—the extensive, expensive margarita menu is famous. Sitting on the patio, we also ordered dinner, and while the chips and salsa were a yawn, the pumpkin seed-accented chile relleno (which came from the attached Doc Martin’s Restaurant) was truly one of the best rellenos I’ve ever tasted. During all of this, a singer-songwriter from Denver was performing. The music wasn’t our speed, but the Adobe Bar has different kinds of quieter performers (not black metal bands or anything) every night of the week. With a half-bottle of champagne in tow, we returned to our room for much-needed relax-o time.
At 11:30 a.m., our check-out extended by a half-hour, we vacated the room and went out in search of coffee. Wandering the plaza we found a not only coffee, more delicious chile rellenos and a bunch of zia-emblazoned trinkets, but also Governor Bill Richardson. He was in Taos to speak about some water-related thing. When the“huh?” moment passed, we visited a few local retail shops: Common Thread (where I purchased embroidery scissors, vintage lace and imported fabrics), Taos Sound (where I picked up a Waitresses record) and some thrift store (where I acquired a beautiful, framed landscape oil painting for $20). Before leaving for dinner in Santa Fe, we also dropped by the Rio Grande Gorge, which was smaller than I’d imagined.
In summary, I’m revisiting the Historic Taos Inn, in all of its gourmet relleno-ed, metaphysical margarita-ed and cozy-roomed glory, before the year’s end.
It’s Winter Somewhere in New Mexico
My mini-staycation at Sandia Peak
Yesterday following a very successful (I bought an excellent dresser) and celebrity-sprinkled (wouldn’t have known it was him, as I’d never heard of him, if it weren’t for my movie industry companions) trip to the Antique Specialty Mall, we were driving east towards my favorite thrift store for new crap, T.J. Maxx. As I admired the lovely grey day and the wonderfully gloomy cloud cover on the mountains, it occurred to me that Albuquerque has a tram—the longest one in the world, at that. Offhandedly, I said it’d be a nice day to take the novelty ride. Rather than digging through “active bottoms” at the Maxx, I soon found myself forking over $20 for a Sandia Peak Tramway “flight” and suffering screaming children. This began to seem like a very bad idea. Once we boarded (without the sobbing three-year-old who was still apparently wearing diapers) things got freaking pretty. The rain and views of the city were beautiful. Snow flurried around at the peak and it was suddenly winter. After shooting camera phone photos, we headed to the High Finance bar for whiskey and snacks. We hung around the bar for about half an hour, listening to some smooth-ass jazz (”God, how do you make a guitar sound this gay?”) and wondering why there’s no mountain lodge for overnight stays. We caught a handsome buzz at 10,000 feet, then boarded he tram back to town, giggling all the way down. Between the three of us the whole experience cost about $100, but I deem the monsoon season peak experience money well-spent.