Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The Chitwan Experience


Monday afternoon, November 23, I squeezed myself into a Twin Otter, 20-seater, two-propeller airplane along with 19 other tightly-tucked-in passengers and we took off for Bharatpur airport in the Chitwan National Park in Nepal. Luckily it was only a 30-minute ride, and I slept part of the way, so no big deal. I was met at the airport by reps from the Unique Wild Resort, with which I had arranged a three-night, four-day package. They loaded me into one of the most beat-up old safari jeeps I’ve seen outside of old Tarzan movies, and we were off to the Resort. The jeep had almost no dials and gauges, and the ones that were left clearly didn’t work, but no one seemed to mind. I looked in vain for a seat belt, and then just settled back to content myself with the rolling, bumping, jostling, bouncing ride along a basic asphalt highway and later dirt and rocky roads. All part of the Chitwan experience.
The road wound through native villages and fields, most of which reminded me of Africa – large open dry areas with distant jungle. The other traffic on the roads included trucks, buses, jeeps, ox carts (with real oxen), camels and elephants. Yep, the elephants were everywhere, rolling from side to side and lumbering down the roads. As we approached one giant beast from the rear, I noticed he had the following tattooed on his right and left sides: “Passing Side” and “Suicide.” Nepali humor. (Ed. Note: They drive on the opposite side of the road here, like in the UK).
The ride also included a wide variety of jungle smells: smoke, dust, dirt, exhaust and elephant farts - at least that’s what they smelled like. Could just have been my driver. Anyway, we arrived at the Resort in about 30 minutes, and I was shown to my room, located across the road from the main camp area in the B Compound. Next level up from Ground, it had a couple of double beds and a clean bathroom. What it didn’t have, I found out later, was hot water. Damn. But the staff were extremely welcoming and friendly, and they greeted me with a smiling “Namaste” and fed me lunch right away, which was good, as I was quite hungry. Next (or first) on the program was a Nature Walk through a Tharu village, one of the local ethnic peoples. A nice stroll, as we went through the elephant compound (where the big boys were chained to posts), a couple of local wildlife museums and the village proper – mud huts, grass and hay structures, goats, poverty. Real third world stuff.
We ended up at a riverbank to watch the sunset – not quite as good as watching it from a Greek island, but not bad. At least, after the long sweaty walk, in 80-degree temperature, there were a couple of Everest beers to cool us down. After dinner, we were also treated to a local Tharu Cultural Program in a nearby village. This one was actually pretty good, with young men dancing in a circle and whacking each other’s sticks with their own sticks, and the ravening crowd was mightily impressed. The tall, thin Tharu emcee was obviously fluent in English, but his accent was from somewhere near Liverpool, and the crowd also had a difficult time understanding him. But it was still fun, and a good time was had by all.
The next day I was awakened by someone pounding on my door at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in the morning. And it was cold in that room. And there was still no hot water. I shivered into my clothes, ran over to the dining hall for breakfast (just to get the blood flowing), and we were trucked off for our first day’s excursion – a canoe trip, in native canoes, no less. Ten people to a wooden dugout canoe, one native in the rear poling, and a guide in front to point out interesting sights, like exotic birds, sleeping crocodiles and early-to-rise elephants and their mahouts. It was a short tour, only about 30 minutes, but all my poor buns could take seated on that hard wooden seat in that narrow canoe.
We also did a short walking tour, checked out the elephant breeding ground, where we got to cavort with the elephant babies, and then repaired to another area of the river for the highly-touted elephant bathing. Immediately upon arrival, I stripped down to my swimming trunks, donned a t-shirt and sandals, and headed for the riverbank to find out what was what. I was directed to climb onto the back of one of the elephants – I’ll call him Jumbo – and the mahout headed him out into the river, about five yards from shore, where it was only about five feet deep.
The mahout then started yelling things to the elephant that sounded like, “Chhopp, takart, hardling, fukkin, panch,” or words to that effect. Apparently, these sounds were intelligible to Jumbo, and they obviously had meaning for him. What they apparently meant was, “Fill your trunk with cold river water, bend your trunk back over your head, and spray the old fat guy with as much water as possible.” Which Jumbo did. Oh, yeah, that was fun. The advertisements I had seen for this activity appeared to indicate we would be bathing the elephants; instead, they bathed us.
The mahout then urged Jumbo into deeper water and had him shake himself, which, naturally, resulted in my being thrown off, much as a rodeo rider is thrown off a bucking horse. He was too big to be a bucking elephant, but the result was the same. Into the water I went. I scrambled back onto Jumbo’s back as quickly as possible, as the river was aswarm with elephant turds the size of volleyballs. Atop Jumbo again, I was subjected to several more trunk-filled sprays of water before the mahout let me off. I hope the photos came out.
I dried off and retrieved my sandals, after loaning them to a Canadian who also wanted to try out the elephant bathing, and we all walked back to the Resort for a hot shower, a tetanus shot and lunch. After an hour’s rest, it was off on a jeep safari through thick jungle. It was slow going, as we were watching for any indigenous animals. We did manage to see some deer, a couple of wilds pigs and a few birds. Not a great safari, but the German tourists enlivened it by singing for us. Just what I wanted. After dinner, I walked into the nearby village of Sauraha for some shopping and a beer at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the street. Nice. That picture did come out.
Wednesday was another 6:30 wakeup knock, and I bounded out of bed, ready to start the day, especially since I’d gotten to bed the previous night by 10 PM. First was a bird-watching walk through the early-morning dewy jungle. Those who know me know bird watching is not particularly high on my list of priorities, but it was part of the program and I paid for entire program and I was by God going to watch some friggin’ birds or else! I think I saw maybe two birds, but at least I got my shoes and pants soaking wet, so that was alright.
Back to the resort for breakfast, which I wolfed down, then went back to my room to see if I could take a shower. Nope, still no hot water, so I had the manager put me in a new room, this time in the A Compound, next to the dining hall. I got hot water, which was nice, then later that night found out the beds were actually planks of teak wood with a thin mattress pad on top. My bones still hurt.
Anyway, after lunch was my last activity of the package, the elephant safari. This was also a cool deal, as were all of the activities involving elephants. Each elephant had a wooden boxlike frame on top of some pads on its back. Four people sat in the frames, one at each corner, with their legs dangling over the sides, so the weight was evenly distributed. Our elephant, I’ll call her Dolores, wasn’t the biggest one of the lot, but she was friendly and smart. During the jungle tour, at the commands of her mahout, I saw her search through some ground leaves with her trunk and pick up a dropped lens cap belonging to one of the passengers. Not bad.
Anyway, we rolled and bounced along the jungle paths, and came upon some deer, a couple of large rhinos, a few sleeping crocs and a canoe-full of other tourists. An hour and a half was about all our poor numb butts could take, and we dismounted slowly and painfully. Mr. Mahout gestured if I had enjoyed the tour, and I answered “raamro” (good) in my best Nepali. We each gave Dolores a bunch of bananas, which she accepted gratefully and with a trumpeted thanks. Upon return to camp, I headed to town again for a beer and some spicy meat munchies before dinner. I sat on the rooftop restaurant and watched the elephants and oxen and camels troop through the town, on the way to their own dinners. A good ending to a good day and, in fact, to a good trip.
During my stay in Chitwan, I’d met a young English teacher from Yorkshire, a couple of Canadians and some really nice young people from Beijing. The food was plain but good, with very few meat dishes. Mostly it consisted of fruit, veggies, potatoes, oatmeal, eggs, tea and coffee, and rice. Inquiries by the staff as to the tastiness of my meal brought out more of my fractured Nepali: Dherai mitho chha (What I am eating is good). Everyone was hungry after a day’s activity, and ate quite well.
The weather was also wonderful, sunny and clear and around 75 or so (22 C) during the day, although cold at night, down near freezing. The rooms were clean and neat, and we even had electricity most of the day.
The ride back to the airport on my final day was another adventure, one I hadn’t been expecting. My driver used the same safari jeep I had been picked up in, but the intervening few days had not been kind to my old pal. When the driver got up to speed on the highway, the front end shimmied badly and I thought a wheel was going to fall off, or maybe even the front axle, which made the entire trip much more interesting. Then, about halfway there, the driver suddenly stopped right on the road and hopped out and ran to the side of the road to relieve himself. No pulling onto the shoulder, no hazard lights (Hah!), no warnings, just stopped and peed. Hmmm. Then back into the jeep and off we went, shuddering and shimmering.
We arrived at the airport and I unclenched my hand and pried it off the door. I’d made it again. Checked in at the minuscule airport, no candy stands or newsstands or food or souvenir shops, just a couple of toilets which evidenced their keepers’ cavalier attitude toward cleanliness. It was just a short wait, however, and a half hour later I was back in Kathmandu and being met at the airport by Macha Raja, my driver buddy. He took me back to an empty house, and I settled in for a quiet night updating my journals and watching a movie or two and scrounging for something to eat. It was nice to be home. Only a touch under three more weeks to go. Now – what about that river rafting trip?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Namaste!


After a quick two-hour flight from Budapest, my backpack and I wandered around the Athens airport for a few hours before my next four-hour flight to Doha on Qatar Airlines. It’s advertised as a five-star airline, and it wasn’t bad at all. I settled in the barely-enough-legroom seat with my headphones, moist towlette, piece of complimentary candy, in-flight magazine, in-flight duty-free shopping guide and in-flight entertainment guide. I was ready! I said goodbye sadly to the Athens airport, which has drinking fountains (!) and wonderful new politically correct signs directing people of “reduced mobility” to special places. Gotta love it.
So I arrived at Doha airport around 11:30 at night to begin a seven-hour layover. Not looking forward to that. Anyway, I checked in at the Qatar Airlines Transit Desk to find out my gate number for the early-morning flight.. The young woman there gave it to me, then asked me if I had had dinner yet. I told her No, and she gave me a voucher for a free dinner at one of the fast food outlets nearby. Not too shabby, Qatar Air. Had a nice meal of samosa, vegetarian rolls, fries and a drink. Only six and a half hours to go. I cruised the large duty-free area, thought about buying a $200 raffle ticket with a Lamborghini as a prize, realized I’ve never won anything, so resisted the temptation, wandered around a little more, and finally found a marginally-comfortable chair and settled in for the long wait until my flight was called. Think I got around two hours sleep.
Checked in for my flight around 5:30 AM, bleary-eyed and stumbling. Found my seat on the Qatar Airlines plane and immediately nodded off again. Another speedy four-hour flight and I was in Kathmandu. Damn. Another adventure about to begin. And everything went so smoothly at passport control and baggage claim. I had already completed my visa application form, just had to do another one at the airport (!), pay my $40 visa fee and go find my suitcase. It was checked all the way through from Budapest, so I was hoping it had survived the trip. And it had! In fact, as I walked up to the baggage carousel, it was the first bag off. Wow! How often does that happen? Makes me think my departure in mid-December will be really horrible. We shall see.
My friend Sandra, with whom I would be staying, had sent her driver to pick me up. As I exited the airport, 10,000 people were crammed into the arrivals area looking for their friends, family, loved ones, etc. How would I ever find Macha Raja? Turns out Sandra had shown him my photo on Facebook, me and the tiger, and he was waiting for me in the front of the crowd. Another quick, easy process and we were off to the wilds of Kathmandu in his little purple Subaru Zen.
Sandra lives about 200 meters off the Ring Road, northeast of the city, and we drove through some of the worst traffic I’d seen since my trip to India in 2007. No lane markers, no traffic lights, no pollution laws and apparently no understanding of the rules of the road. Banged-up cars and motorcycles and buses everywhere, spewing out tons of pollution into the beautiful Kathmandu valley. And since it is a valley, and there’s not much air movement, the bad air just hangs there, casting a noticeable pall over everything. Many of the Nepalese wear face masks to cut down on their inhalation of all the terrible fluorocarbons and even worse dust floating around. But, hey, the temperature was around 78 degrees (F), the sun was shining gaily through the smog and the road was alive with the vibrancy of the local people. All 1.5 million of them crammed into poor little Kathmandu.

Anyway, it was only a short drive distance-wise, and we drove through the gate to find Sandra’s three-story luxury house (at least by Nepal standards). Bright yellow on the outside, trimmed with wood, inside it was even better. USAID does alright by their employees. Lots of wood and carved doorframes and Tibetan rugs and barred windows. There’s even a pool table in a large common room on the second floor. And the view from the rooftop terrace has to be seen to be believed. Sandra’s cleaning lady was there, but her cook was off for the time being. Tough life, hah? Cleaning lady, cook and driver. My kids’ tax dollars at work.
Sandra was still at work, as it was around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, so I unpacked and tried to catch a few winks before she got home She finally arrived around 7 PM with a couple of her colleagues in tow. Brianna had offered to fix Thai food, which was a nice treat, and Ferenc (from Budapest, naturally! Darn Hungarians – just can’t get away from them) was along to help greet the new arrival. I scarfed down too many Samuel Adams’ ales and pigged out on salad and Thai noodles with chicken. Yummy. I finally got to my bed around midnight, and slept the sleep of the weary traveler.
But the next morning, I was up with the sun and ready to check out Kathmandu. I rode in with Sandra to work at the US Embassy, and Macha dropped me off in the Thamel area, a place filled with tourist shops, trekking stores, cheap prices, local restaurants and happy natives. It was just like most bazaars you’ve seen in your travels, everyone hustling and trying for a buck – or, in this case, rupee.
I was armed with my trusty map I’d printed off the Internet, so I was ready to try finding my way down Kathmandu’s back streets from Thamel Chowk (which means “intersection”) to Kathmandu’s major attraction, Durbar Square. Not a long trek, but lots of winding narrow streets. Of course, to add a touch of spice to the adventure, Kathmandu’s streets do not have names or any signs posted whatsoever to identify the streets. Hmmm, should be fun. So off I set toward Durbar Square, Naturally with my unerring sense of direction, I immediately got on the wrong street, took a couple of inappropriate turns at other busy chowks and eventually found myself emerging at a main street, which I incorrectly identified as the New Road on my map.
It wasn’t New Road, of course, as I found out while wandering forlornly up and down it. I finally chanced upon a big sign that did identify New Road, and realized where I had made my error. Stupid tourist. I corrected and took off toward Durbar Square. Finally found it, paid my entrance fee and acquired a local guide, Misha, to escort me through the ins and outs of this temple-filled area. He was great and really knew his history and buildings, and I had a fun time wandering with him. If you’re interested, you can check out the buildings on an Internet site, so I won’t bore you with them here.
Anyway, after my tour I managed to connect with my Internations friend Rabin. He took me to lunch at a nearby Nepalese restaurant, Alina's Café, where we had a wonderful tray full of food: mutton, sauces, potatoes, spices, a large plate of rice with which you’re supposed to mix the other stuff, and some yoghurt. Good solid home cooking. Along with a bottled soft drink, it ran me a little over $4 US. I was off to a good start on my Nepal adventure.
We arranged to meet the next day to finalize the schedule and payment for my trip to Chitwan National Park the following week, and I walked back the main road to Thamel, managing not get lost this time. I did a little more browsing in various shops, looking for one of those great striped cotton shirts worn in this part of the world. I found several I liked, but the sizes! Suffice it to say the Nepalese extra-large shirts aren’t the same as my extra-large bod these days. Bummer. Finally managed to find one that mostly fit (I won’t tell you the marked size), so I was somewhat mollified. I also had a cold drink at one of a chain of small restaurants called the Bakery Café, which employs deaf waiters. Ooops, sorry, hearing impaired. I’d forgotten I had read about this place in the guidebook, and I blithely told the waiter what I wanted. He motioned to his ear and shook his head, and I remembered about the deaf waiters, so I sort of redeemed myself by pointing at things on the menu. The American Tourist abroad. Macha picked me up around 3 PM, and we headed home for my nap. I was still a little jet-lagged and tired, so needed to refortify myself periodically.
Macha and I picked up Sandra at work around 7 PM and we headed a short distance away to Kotetsu, a nice little Japanese restaurant, where everyone sits around a long open grill and the cooks fix everything right in front of you. No knife-twirling this time, but the food was great. I had the spicy tuna sushi and grilled calamari. Mmmmm. The party that night was in honor of some of Sandra’s embassy friends whose parents had come to visit from Florida and who were leaving shortly. Around nine US Embassy employees and family members. A nice group. I also accompanied the meal with white wine and then some sake, so I was feeling pretty good by the end..
Managed to make it to bed around midnight again, and sleep was welcome. It had been a good first two days in Kathmandu.
Wednesday, November 18, Macha took me to meet with Rabin in the southern part of the city. Rabin didn’t have his credit-card imprinter, so we had to meet later that day to finalize my trip payment. Macha then dropped me off at Patan’s Durbar Square, another great area of temples and palace architecture, south of Kathmandu city. I acquired another guide – or, to be more precise, he acquired me – and off we went to explore the local sights and sounds of this really beautiful little Square. Raz was another good guide, and after an hour’s tour and explanation of everything, I found a nearby rooftop restaurant for lunch. I climbed five flights of stairs to get to it, and was breathing heavily when I arrived on the terrace, but the view was worth it. And the food was good again. This time I chose mo-mo, a Nepalese appetizer, which is really just dim sum. I had the chicken-filled and buffalo-filled ones. Just what the hungry traveler needs. And only 390 rupees, or about $5.00.
We found Rabin later that afternoon and settled my payment for my upcoming Chitwan trip, then headed home for some rest and so I could bring my journal up to date. And now it is.
Wednesday night Sandra took me to a club she hadn’t been to before, called Tamas, to hear a band she had had play at her house for a party. Good band, better munchies. We had Nepalese tapas, which included: chicken lollipops (like chicken legs with sauce), chicken satay on a skewer, mutton balls, fries, and something called sukruti, which turned out to be a nicely spicy mutton mixture. Really spicy – Sandra couldn’t eat it, and her eyes were still tearing 30 minutes later. Of course, being an old New Mexican chile scarfer, I had no problems at all, and downed the sukruti like it was going out of style. Went perfect with beer, equally as good, in a totally different way, as the grenkiy I had in St. Petersburg, Russia, especially with Everest beer, a local brand. The beer came in a 650 ml bottle and cost about $3.50, or 700 forints in Budapest. What a deal.
The next day, Thursday, November 19, I had a full day planned of wandering and sightseeing. I rode in to work with Sandra and asked Macha to drop me off at the Royal Palace, the first stop on my day’s visits. I thought I’d work my way from there through Thamel and down to Durbar Square, seeing selected sights along the way, with lunch at the Rum Doodle restaurant. So, I hit the Royal Palace at 8:30 AM sharp; naturally, it didn’t open until 11. Okaaay, plan revision. Got some breakfast at the Bakery Café, the one with the deaf waiters (which is probably why the music is so bad), and was satisfied for the nonce. Scrambled eggs, sausage, toast and tea, very nice. Then hit the streets for some souvenir shopping, intending to go back to the Palace around 11. Well, this time I looked more carefully at all the goodies on sale, and started buying and just couldn’t stop. Picked up all my gifts and souvenirs, and even had to buy a bag to carry them in. The Shopper returns. Rabin called and wanted to meet for lunch at noon at the Rum Doodle, so that also curtailed my Palace visit. I did get to the Garden of Dreams, however, which was a nice side trip into a pretty, quiet little garden area off the main drag.
Lunch was fun at The Rum Doodle, one of the favorite stops for mountaineering folk. I even left my footprint on the wall on the terrace level; check it out next time you’re there. Rabin gave me all the documents for my trip to Chitwan next week, and after lunch I shopped some more and finally called it a day around 3, when Macha picked me up. I’ll live to visit the Royal Palace another day. That night was a restful one at the house, with pizza and a movie. HBO – wow!
November 20. After visiting the Post Office to buy some stamps for my many post cards (and getting a major runaround as to where to purchase them), I walked over to New Road and found the tailor Sandra recommended. All I could order were a couple of pair of nice slacks, but that was enough. Custom-tailored slacks – alright. Then I walked down the street to Durbar Square and onto Freak Street, the primary gathering place for hippies in the 1960s. Still a few of then left, from the look of it. Anyway, it was nearly lunchtime, so thought I’d try the Kumari restaurant, recommended in my guidebook. Well, it was wonderful. A little tiny place on Freak Street, I ordered a garlic steak and a bottle of Everest beer. The steak came on a sizzling platter, with fries and veggies and, with the beer, was just about as perfect a lunch as I’ve had in awhile.
After lunch I wandered Durbar Square for awhile, taking in those sights I’d seen when I first arrived in a touch more detail. After a lazy late afternoon, Sandra took me to the local newly-opened Irish Pub, which was, well, nice. Good food, though – more momos. Ferenc joined us and we discussed EU politics for way too long. After a short stop at The Factory for just one last drink, Sandra and I ended up in a late-night pool session at her place, until my eyes began to close of their own volition and I hit the sack with a vengeance.
November 21. Saturday, I was up at the crack of nine, way too early. Macha picked me up and I asked him to stop for breakfast at a place called, appropriately enough, Mike’s Breakfast. Another wonderful meal. Two poached eggs, two hamburger-sized sausage patties, fried potatoes, interesting brown Nepalese bread and butter and tea – boy, I needed that.
Refreshed once more, we headed over to the Buddhist Temple and stupa of Swayambunath, on the northwest side of Kathmandu. I did manage to climb all 300 steep stairs to the temple, stopping often along the way to admire the view and catch my breath. But the climb was worth it, with amazing views over all of Kathmandu and an astonishing stupa (like a basilica) at the top of the hill. This landmark is also called the Monkey Temple for all the wild monkeys running all over and around it. Hundreds of monkeys looking for food, cigarettes, whatever, from the tourists.
I strolled around the area for awhile – always remembering to go clockwise around a Buddhist stupa – and decided to feed the poor starving monkeys. I bought some nuts for them, and started my rounds to feed them. They were gone! Not a monkey in sight. Really. Every friggin’ monkey had disappeared from the temple area. I couldn’t find even one. Well, hell, screw you, then, monkeys. I took my monkey nuts (so to speak) and started back down the staircase from hell. Fortunately (for them, anyway), there were monkeys along the way down, and I managed to unload the entire bag of nuts on them. Even had a couple of them eating out of my hand. Cool.
By the time I reached the bottom of the stairs, my thighs were actually quivering, so I sat down to rest and wait for Macha to find me. My afternoon was restful again. That night Sandra was invitrd to dinner at some newly-arrived friends’ home, so she asked me to come along, which I did. The dinner party was for eight people, including the hosts, and the food was wonderful, especially considering the couple’s household goods had only arrived two days previously. The wine flowed and conversation was spirited, but I was still adjusting to the time difference and the food difference, so I called it a night around 11 or so.
Sunday, November 22 – up early again to meet another Internations contact at the Rum Doodle for lunch. Arabinda Subedi. Nice giuy, nice lunch, we chatted away the time until I had to leave. After lunch, we were supposed to tour some neew art galleries, but Sandra got sidetracked or waylaid or something, and Macha finally picked me up 1 ½ hours later. I got to go to the American Club, where Sandra was sitting with a few friends for afternoon drinks. We headed home shortly, then it was off to the wedding of some Hindu friends of Sandra’s, which was a ball. Held on the top floor of a large hall in the Patan district, way south of Kathmandu, it was crowded with revelers, some of whom were Sandra’s work colleagues. The women mostly wore beautiful saris, and the men were in suits, except, of course, for me, but no one seemed to care. The food was great and the DJ was lively, and I danced away the evening.
Monday morning, November 23, Macha drove me to the airport around 10 AM for my noon flight to Chitwan with Tara Air. It was the beginning of my four-day package with Unique Wild Adventures in the Chitwan National Park. And for more about what happened next, you’ll have to wait for the next Newsletter installment.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Autumn Interlude

As is usual at this time of year, with everyone back from vacation and summer holidays, the fall social season swung into full gear early in September. There were, of course, the standard gatherings: Viking Club on the first Thursday of the month, wherein all of the Scandinavians in Budapest find each other at a local bar and celebrate the difference between the incredibly expensive alcoholic drinks in their home countries and the really cheap drinks here in Hungary; the Monday evening Happy Hours at a local Italian restaurant, wherein a small but truly international group of expats gather to sip the Italian national drink of Spritzzz (basically, just a white wine spritzer with Aperol) and catch up on all the gossip the Viking Club didn’t supply; the monthly Internations meetings, an expanded version of Happy hour, with well over 100 attendees and as many as 20 different nationalities; the Friday ritual Happy Hour at the Britannia Club, Brit-centric but with a nice sprinkling of other countries thrown in; the Curry Club, still going from Indian restaurant to Indian restaurant to see which is the best in town; and a host of other infrequent events such as birthday parties, Pub Quizzes, comedy clubs and special gatherings to Save Budapest’s Gardens or to celebrate one of the many failures in Hungarian history.

Whew, lots to do. Of course, all of these gatherings attract not only the usual suspects, but also many newly-arrived people, so we get to meet and greet newbies all the time. Since many newbies are also attractive women, I attend as many events as I can.

I also flirted with something called Bikram Yoga. I’m still trying to lose some weight, but without the strenuous exercises of the local weight rooms or running till I drop, so I decided to try some low-impact exercising via yoga. Of course, I couldn’t pick just any yoga – it had to be Bikram Yoga. Picture doing the standard yoga stretching exercises for 90 minutes in a dry sauna. Yep, that’s what it’s like. This large, very hot room - say, 100 degrees F – filled with young women and maybe 3-4 men, and me, all doing yoga exercises – stretching and pulling and balancing and sweating out all the poisons – at least a liter’s worth of liquid. Whew. Too bad my poor old bod won’t stretch or bend or entwine in the positions desired. I did my best, however, and was able to do about two-thirds of the postures and stretches, but there were all too many times I just sat there and sweated while the limber young women did things with their bodies that I haven’t even been able to think of since 1962. At the end of the session, I had sweated out at least two liters of liquids, and my floor towel, floor mat, wipe-off towel and my shorts and tank top all looked as if I had dunked them into a large warm bathtub filled with water. I mean, I was WET! A couple of trial sessions were enough for me, and I happily went back to my couch-potato exercises, wherein the heaviest exercise I perform is to thumb down the TV remote controller to change channels. Much better.

I renewed my residence permit for another couple of years, so I’m legal once again. Guess I’ll be staying for awhile. I’ve thought of maybe moving on, but I just can’t find a place in Europe or the Mediterranean area as nice or with as many good friends as here. Or, probably, as inexpensive, even with the price rises over the years. Maybe Asia, but for the long haul I just can’t stand the humidity. And then, on Tuesday, September 29, 2009, I celebrated the tenth anniversary of my arrival in Budapest. Ten years. Damn! It’s all gone so quickly, and I’ve done so many things I never thought I’d ever do, and seen so many things I never thought I’d ever see. I’ve met all sorts of wonderful people and had lots of incredible experiences. My second life has truly been, overall, the best part of my entire life. I just wish I’d taken up a career in my first life that had allowed me to travel as much. Ah, well, no regrets; maybe next time around.

I also toyed with the possibility of taking on another English class or two, but nothing definite yet. We shall see. One evening I also attended a special program at the local Holocaust Center, complete with a tour of exhibits which were new since the last time I was there, and some reminiscences of a survivor of the camps. Naturally, we’ve all seen the movies and read the books and even, in some cases, visited one of the infamous camps, but to sit there and actually listen to an 80-year-old survivor talk about what it was like to be a fifteen-year-old Hungarian girl having dinner with your family and suddenly have Arrow Cross thugs (the Hungarian equivalent of Nazis) literally break down your door and yell at you to pack a bag in five minutes and hustle you off to the train station at gunpoint – and then describe what happened after – being separated from her mother at the Auschwitz arrival platform, never to see her again – being “liberated” by Russian soldiers (mostly Mongolians) whose idea of liberation was to rape every female in sight – well, it doesn’t make one feel too positive toward Hungarians for awhile. Women like her are becoming scarcer all the time, and I hope people of today’s world have a chance to hear someone like her before they are all gone.

Also managed to maintain my standing as social prince of Budapest. One week I was out every night in a row. Guess I’m not getting too old for this stuff. Among my many events were: I helped the Brits celebrate Guy Fawkes Night at yet another party at the Intercontinental Hotel along the Danube; managed to catch a rugby match or two; also helped select the new shirts we plan to sell to help promote rugby for Hungarian youth; caught a new jazz combo at the Cotton Club; and joined some new aficionados for a karaoke night.

Anyway, I generally took it fairly easy (!), watching my diet and getting ready for my Nepal trip. Yep, my friend Sandra with USAID okayed my visit for mid-November to mid-December. To me one of the most fun aspects of traveling is planning the trip, doing research on what to do and see and where to go. So, I spent many happy hours on the Internet and in various bookstores around town, checking websites and travel books for things to see and do in Kathmandu and excursions therefrom. Once again, I sent out a request on the Internations Forum for anyone from Kathmandu who might like to meet up when I got there, and got two hits. Both Nepalese locals wrote back and welcomed me, and I arranged to contact them during my stay. One of them, Rabin, owns a travel agency and arranged for my first excursion from Kathmandu about a week after I arrive. I’ll be going to Chitwan National Park for four days, package to include an elephant safari and bath, jungle walk, village visit and probably other goodies I didn’t note. Gotta love that Internations. In preparation for my trip, I had to get more shots, of course, make my flight reservations and decide what to take with me. The best flight I could find routes me from Budapest through Athens to Doha for a seven-hour layover in the middle of the night, then on to Kathmandu. Coming back I have the same long layover in Doha, then fly to London and back to Budapest. We’ll see how it goes.

And so, on to Nepal. Watch this space eagerly for the next installment, the first of my Katmandu adventures.