Friday, December 31, 2010


You're in the jungle, baby!  Chitwan National Park to be more precise.  The concept of a "jungle walk" sounds okay in theory, but then you're actually out on even footing with the tigers and bears and leopards and elephants and rhinos and you realize the guide's stick isn't going to offer much protection when one of these mother sentient beings comes charging for you.  Nor are you calmed by the guide's advice on how to "defend" against an attack:

Rhino:  Climb a tree (analyzing every single tree I passed along the way for its potential as an escape route, I can tell you this is not a realistic plan of action).

Tiger:  Maintain eye contact and don't run (ooookkk!).

Sloth Bear:  Stay in a group and make as much noise as possible, and if necessary, fight.  (My guides seemed legitimately concerned that I would abandon them in the event of an attack, asking twice that I help out if we encounter an angry sloth bear.  I got you Prakash and Sunina, no worries.)

Elephant:  Pray.

So the entire walk is fairly unnerving.  When I asked one of the guides whether she had ever been attacked by an animal her response was "sometimes".  Actually, I learned that it is not so unusual, so I was somewhat glad to have encountered only deer, monkeys and a peaceful rhino during my walk.

Oh yea, upon arriving in Chitwan I caught the final day of the 2010 International Elephant Festival, which included elephant soccer and elephant races.  That was weird.

That's about a wrap on Nepal.  Hard to believe that I just about took my ninety day visa to its limit.  Although in the last couple days I have noticed myself unconsciously doing the Indian/Nepali head waggle which can be used to express just about anything - acquiescence, gratitude, directives, apologies - depending on the situation.  (At least that's when I've noticed myself doing it - perhaps the Nepalis think it's weird I keep signaling "yes" to them in all kinds of inappropriate situations).

From here I take my waggling head to Myanmar/Burma for twenty-eight days.  I'm pretty sure I won't be blogging from Burma, so it could be as late as February before there's another post, but you never know.

As Simon put it, happy extremely merely labeled new year!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Very Kathmandu Christmas

My ancestors would be happy to know that despite all this Buddhist practice, I kept the sacred traditions of Judaism alive this holiday season, making sure to enjoy a fine Chinese meal on Christmas Eve.  Actually, it felt like a pretty authentic experience as the food was amazing, and the place was filled with Chinamen (in this case, I believe it is the preferred nomenclature) shouting and smoking cigarettes through the meal.  After dinner we tried to complete the Jewish Christmas by going to see a movie, but alas, there was no showing on this most holy of nights.

I'm again spending some time in Kathmandu proper, as I wait for the Burmese embassy to work out my visa.  So today my buddy Simon and I went over to Pashuputinath, a Hindu holy temple complex outside of Kathmandu.  Pashuputinath is very Indian.  Dodging a gauntlet of beggars with horrific disfigurements, we entered the complex running along the Bagmati, which looks more like a stream of sludge running through a garbage dump than any river I've seen.  Wandering sadhus use Pashuputinath as a kind of home base, so around each corner of the complex Simon and I would bump into another half-naked, face-painted, dreadlocked, holy man.  Most of the sadhus just hunker down with a blanket in whatever corner of the complex they can find, though higher up the river there are some caves in which some of these most revered Hindus set up tiny temporary meditation/sleeping coves.

While young and filthy street kids played in the slime and gangs of monkeys climbed and fought their way around the temple walls, Simon and I sat and watched a few of the human cremations in progress.  It's a sight I witnessed last time around in India, but today we stood on an overlook more or less right on top of the funeral pyre, watching as the weeping family laid the body on the wood pile and lit the fire that would consume their loved one's form.   As in Varanasi, there is a kind of hospice situation (i.e., a row of beds) no more than one hundred meters away from the burning ghats where the dying can smell their oncoming fate, inhaling a mix of air and ash with their final breaths.

Not sure what else to say about this one. You might think that after spending six weeks thinking a lot about death that I'd be able to internalize the experience a little better, but the ego still refuses to really UNDERSTAND that no, that is not a fake body, yes, just days or possibly hours ago it was a real living person like me and everyone else, yes, someday my body also will be put on a funeral pyre or buried or fed to vultures or whatever.  So we just sat, watching and failing to get it, until we felt we had inhaled enough dead people for the day.

Wow, that one got intense kind of quickly, eh?  Happy Holidays everybody!!!!

Oh, since the last post a few people have mentioned to me that they went out and bought Awakening the Buddha Within.  Please keep in mind I'm not getting kickbacks here people.  Awakening is fantastic, inspiring and entertaining, but its quite long and towards the end becomes very meat and potatoes practice talk, so if anyone is actually interested in this stuff, you might drop me a line privately, as I may have a Dharma book suggestion that is more suited for your own unique and wonderful personality.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Dharma Project

My first real introduction to the teachings of the Buddha (the "Dharma") came in the form of a book I read when I was in college: Awakening the Buddha Within, by Lama Surya Das.  Lama Das - originally Jeffrey Miller, a Jewish guy from Long Island - had given up a possible future as a New York City attorney to move to the east, study Buddhism, and become a highly regarded teacher in the Tibetan tradition.  For many years Awakening sat unopened in a prominent place on my bookshelf, and I consequently forgot the specifics of Lama Das' story, such as where he had gone to study the Dharma. Nonetheless, the book had inspired me and set off a chain of events such that nine years after I originally opened the book, I found myself sitting in a newly-constructed library at the top of Kopan Hill, surrounded by gleaming snow-covered Himalayan mountaintops, re-reading the first sentences of Awakening:

 I am in a small, clay, mud-floored hut at the top of Kopan Hill, surrounded by gleaming snow-covered Himalayan mountaintops.


Being that one of the days at the monastery coincided with my ten year high school reunion, I couldn't help but imagine how the Noah that graduated Holmdel High School (go Hornets!) in 2000 would react to this news if the Noah of today could let him know.

29 year old Noah:  Hey buddy.

18 year old Noah:  Ugh, what do you want?

29:  Wow, you really are a dick.  Just thought you might be interested in the reason why you were unable to attend your ten year high school reunion.

18:  Was listening to some sick beats at club Exit, I have to assume. 

29:  Actually, you were spending 6 weeks in a monastery in Nepal.

18:  WHAT?!?  A monastery?  But I just finished a Bertrand Russell book while listening to my favorite Bad Religion album.  You were in a MONASTERY?

29:  Yea, well actually a Buddhist monastery.

18:  Buddhism, huh?  Can you light yourself on fire like the guy on the cover of the Rage Against the Machine Album??  Cause that would be SWEET!

29:  That WOULD be sweet, but unfortunately I'm not confident that after six weeks of study my meditative absorbtion is at a point to allow self-immolation.

18:  Six weeks?!  I hope you brought your discman.

29:  Actually these days we listen to music on i-po....  Nope, no discman.  No music.

18:  No music?  You have your guitar at least?

29:  No guitar.

18:  No guitar?!

29:  No guitar.  No TV, no movies, no internet, no non-dharma books, no magazines.  You get the point. 

18:  Jeez, weirdo.  Well, how was it?

29:  Yea, the experience doesn't lend itself to being described really.

18:  Ok, well thanks for bringing it up then.

29:  From a cultural point of view, it was an amazing and unique opportunity to make a Tibetan monastery home for a period of time and be a part of its daily routine.  Listening to the monks chanting each morning and night, taking part in their rituals, dodging their flying arms while walking through their debates, watching the flow of daily tourists come and go.

18:  Sounds boring.  Can we get down to business now?  WHERE is the sports almanac from the future so I can become rich by gambling?

29:  Stop watching so many movies.  Also, take the few coins you have and invest in Apple and Google.  Stay away from gin and girls named Doris, hide out on the docks when the cops come to Craig's, and bet on the Giants to win Superbowl XLII.

18:  Doris?  You mean you're not married to Amanda??

29:  Oh, buddy.  And shave that ridiculous strip of hair off your chin.

18:  Look who's talking.

The most perceptive of you may have noticed that the subtitle of the blog has been modified.  One of the great and profound revelations I had at the monastery was that the name of the blog, "No-Blog", could be misinterpreted to be a play on my name.  This was not my intention, as that would be terribly, unbearably corny.  Instead, the intent was to make a play on the Buddhist concept of emptiness (e.g., no-self), which is terribly, unbearably corny AND terribly, unbearably geeky.  As for what the new words really mean, well I've spent the past few years and the greater part of the past six weeks trying to figure that out, so if anyone knows, let me in on it!

Here are some pictures.

Pictures and links, I'm getting this blog thing down!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

I Am Not Dead! (yet)

Lest anyone think that Asian traveling is just mountains and jump-kicks, I am inclined to tell you that I spent the last few days wearing a path in the carpet between my bed and the toilet as my body did battle with some  nasty bacteria I must have consumed along the way.  I'll spare you the gory details, but let's just say that I believe this was the first time I've passed out from the sheer physical exertion required by the motions of being ill.  The mass exodus of everything I've ever eaten from my body left me crumpled on the floor of my guesthouse bathroom. 

Anyway, now that I seem to be recovered, I am ready to begin tomorrow a five week meditation course/retreat at Kopan Monastery in Boudhanath.  During this time I'll be completely unplugged from the matrix - no phone, no internet, no telegrams.  But rest assured, though I am out of contact and perhaps engaging in the "this body is a corpse" contemplation (my personal favorite), I am (hopefully) still alive.  Until then, happy Thanksgiving, Chanukah, birthday* and ten year high school reunion!

(By the way, the blog is now averaging a vomit reference once every 5.5 posts.  Go No-Blog, you highbrow web-log, you!)

*if applicable

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Himalayan Trekking Part 2: The Annapurna Circuit

During the first two days of the Annapurna Circuit you begin your climb by following the trail from one small Nepali village to the next, ascending through lush hills that have been carved into terraced rice paddies.  You climb on, and in the following couple of days you find yourself passing through deep green gorges.  The valley emanates a tremendous power, the white river rushing along its base and incredible waterfalls greeting you around every corner, waterfalls bragging a vertical drop of 200, 300, 400, 500 meters. It is a world of wondrous cliffs and hills that would surely be famous anywhere else on earth, anywhere where it wasn't eclipsed by the dizzying mountains that were to come.  But you walk on, and as your feet carry you higher and higher, the scenery is constantly evolving, the mountain air forcing the landscape to react.  Higher you go, until day five when you get your first awe-inspiring glimpse of the Annapurna mountains towering above your head.

Your legs become sore and your clothing dirty, but you continue to climb.  You pass one, then ten, then hundreds of sets of prayer flags and chortens as you continue up into the mountains.  You eat another meal of Dal Bhat and your bowels finally give in to the reality of squat toilets, as you continue your ascent.  You meet other trekkers - this time from the UK, Germany, Israel, China, Denmark, Norway, Brazil, Canada - and as you continually pass each other over the coming days you slowly become acquaintances and friends, eating your meals together, laughing at each others' jokes, learning each others' card games, solving each others' riddles, sharing together in the awesome power of God and nature that is on display.  You climb on, hiking higher and higher until you have walked straight into the sky, and still the Annapurna mountains tower above you, teasing you with smiling rays of sun reflecting off their snowy peaks.

The final push to the the mountain pass of Thorung La involves a morning ascent of one thousand meters, which you must endure moving in baby-steps, as you will your legs through the molasses of the oxygen-deprived air.  There is nothing but dirt and rock at this altitude, and the sweeping expanse gives the illusion that you have walked so far and so high that you've journeyed to the moon. On this final day of climbing, four hours after your early morning start, you finally, finally, reach the 5416 meter (17,769 foot) pass that has been your goal for eight days of hiking.  From this height the distance between you and the mountain peaks tricks the eye into believing that you have met the mountains' challenge, though of course they still exist thousands of meters over your head.

There is still more to come.  A very long, treacherous and dehydrated descent, the disbanding of the little band of independent trekkers that had formed, the formation of a new crew of companions, another steep ascent, a beautiful sunrise across a panoroma of Himalayas, a hike through a rain forest.  You say goodbye to your company who head off for another eight days of trekking up to Annapurna Base Camp and you begin your final day of hiking, an exhausting sx hour descent back to civilization.

After all this and fourteen days (thanks, in part, to a few jeeps that allowed us to cut off a portion of trail that is now marred by a recently-constructed dirt road) I made my triumphant return to Pokhara.

So yea, it was a good time.  Don't believe it?  PICTURES!!

Monday, October 18, 2010

On the Beaten Path

Everyone I had met who had been to Nepal had their stick-shift in fifth gear, so to speak, over Pokhara.  So I was eager to get here, and I have to say, it's pretty much lived up to the hype.  Lakeside Pokhara is a tourist oasis, a long strip of shops, cafes, restaurants, bars, clubs and hotels with any amenity a weary traveler could want.  The strip runs along Phewa Tal, a lake surrounded by mountains and an entire panorama of snow-capped Himalayas that reflect off the blue water.  It is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, a status I do not bestow lightly.  Looks a little something like this:

Given all that, I decided to anchor down here for a week or so and live like a real human being: eating three meals a day, reading the newspaper, getting a haircut, enjoying sunset runs around the lake. The Nepalis of course, always seem to get a kick out of my daily jogs, watching the crazy white boy run around in circles for no apparent reason.  On every run at least one or two of them are kind enough to offer to relieve me of my exercise via a ride on the back of their motorcycle.  Not exactly the point, but thanks guys!

As for the haircut, it was performed at a little curbside set-up, and it took a team of two Nepali barbers working in tandem to get the mohawk done right.  At the end of the haircut, one of the barbers started in on a pretty nice head, neck and back massage.  Noah thinks:  "Oh, a massage is included... well who am I to buck their custom?"  Fifteen minutes in, the stylist/masseur informed me that the "massage extra", though of course fifteen minutes into a massage he could have told me it would have cost my left pinkie and I wouldn't have stopped him.

Tomorrow I am starting the Annapurna Circuit, a 2-3 week trek through the Annapurna mountain range, that is supposed to be one of the best hikes in the world.  I am told we might get sporadic internet access throughout the trek in some of the tea houses along the way, but I'm quite sure I won't have time to blog.  So wish me luck and we'll talk about it on the flip side!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Oh, Wut Up Nepal?!?

Since I had booked my jeep ride to the Indian/Nepali border two days ahead of time, I had my choice of seating, and blindly went with seat number one, cause, you know, that's how I roll.  Well, turns out seat one was in the front row three seater wedged between the driver and another passenger, with my legs straddling the stick shift, such that every shift into fourth gear was a bit unnerving (though vaguely exciting!).  The situation became less humorous (though only slightly so) when it started raining and the dude who was riding on the roof had to squeeze in between the driver and I.  Now whenever operation of the vehicle demanded a change in gears, the driver had to reach over his buddy's lap and either over or under my right thigh, depending on the gear transition.  Four hours later, the driver and I had developed a wordless system of cooperation, each of us anticipating the movement of the other as I positioned my leg in just the right place at just the right time, so he could reach, grab and pull the stick into the appropriate placement, our bodies working together in perfect synergy.  We could have been great lovers together, me and my Gurkha India-to-Nepal chauffeur.

I also endured nineteen hours of Nepali bus rides in the last few days, but this blog has to include something other than transit stories, so I will sum up that block of time by listing just a few of the passengers who shared the seat adjacent to mine during the journey:  A mustachio'd sleeping beauty who used my left shoulder as a pillow for two hours, a shirt-cocking (i.e., naked from the waist down) five-year old boy, a goat, a woman puking into a plastic bag (wasn't the first time I've been puked on, and, Insha'Allah, won't be the last!) and Ishwari, a very kind Nepali who missed his own bus connection to ensure that I made mine.

Believe it or not, I don't just ride around the Indian subcontinent taking one vehicle to the next, I occasionally actually stay in a place for a day or two.  So let's talk about one, yea?  Janakpur.  Janakpur is a holy city for the Hindus, but is nonetheless the kind of place that most travelers don't hit unless they (a) have a lot of time on their hands and (b) want to break up the seventeen hour bus ride from the Indian border to Kathmandu or Pokhara.  Accordingly, there isn't much in the way of tourist infrastructure in Janakpur; my Lonely Planet-recommended hotel looked like it had been bombed out in a war, with doors leading to nothing but rubble, and the sink and shower in my ant-infested room spewing only rust-colored water.  So I spent some time in the one internet cafe I could find, catching up on the world's happenings and contemplating whether I would have been better off taking my chances with one of the notoriously dangerous Nepali night buses that run directly to Pokhara.

After the fourth power outtage in an hour, I finally gave up on the internet cafe in frustration and stepped out into the newly arrived night, only to have Janakpur greet me with an explosion of colors and sounds.  Turns out I was fortunate enough to be in the holy city during Dashain, the biggest Nepali festival of the year.  The entire center of Janakpur, which is more a less a winding complex of temples and shrines, had taken on a carnival-like atmosphere.  Huge colored tents were lit with bright lights leading from one holy spot to the next, while music and chanting blasted through different speakers around every corner.  The people were out in swarms, the women wearing their most colorful saris, lighting candles and saying prayers, the men in paint chanting the Ramaya, clashing symbols and ringing bells.  Cows and ash-covered sadhus (see here)  roamed the maze of lights in equal numbers, competing for space and devotion from the Nepali masses.  The rainbow of sights and sounds was so great and intense as to be almost overwhelming.

As I got lost wandering through the festivities, I surrendered a piece of myself to the atmosphere, unlocking what I believe to be a key to the Hindu heart and mind.  For as long as you are a standoffish passive observer, the people are happy to ignore you or, just as frequently, stare at you unabashedly.  But if you take the initiative to celebrate with them, if you answer their questions with games and laughter, if you dance to their music and sing with their chanting, it you pray with them and perform their rituals, then the Hindu people will open up to you with gracious smiles and laughter and excitement, offering an invitation into their experience like no one else in the world will do.  If you not only participate, but join in the encouragement, helping them to get others to join in the song, sitting with them while they eat and sell their religious headbands, if you become (in my not-so-humble opinion) the best religious headband salesmen Janakpur has ever seen... if you show them your willingness to live a moment with them, they are enthused (most often overly so) to live a moment with you.  If you take the first sip of their festive-drunkenness, they won't let you drink alone.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pala's Place

One of the Foreigners-of-the-Round-Table I met at Yuksom was a twenty-four year old Israeli named Sagy.  Over a shared pizza - my first outside NYC in quite awhile (no comment) - Sagy gave me the hard sell on a place of lodging called "Pala's Place" in Khachapuri, a small Sikkimese village known for its lake revered by Himalayan Buddhists.  Khachapuri is the kind of town that gets only a couple of paragraphs and no map in the Lonely Planet guidebook, but on my new friend's recommendation it now had a place on my itinerary.

By the time (2 hours) the jeep I was in made the 27 kilometers from Pelling to Khachapuri, I was the only passenger left, the remainder having bailed to their respective homes along the way.  Stepping out of the vehicle I took inventory of my final destination:

Police Huts:  1
Restaurants:  1
Tiny Bodega-like Huts That Sell Just Candy and Water and Miscellaneous Buddhist Paraphernalia: 2
Sacred Buddhist Lakes:  1
Hotels: 0 (though I later learned there was a trekkers hut about 200 meters back down the round)
Miscellaneous Shanty Structures: about 3 or 4

So there I was.  My only life raft was Sagy's instructions telling me that Pala's Place was a twenty-minute walk "uphill".  Having driven in on a flat road, the only "uphill" I saw was an unmarked rock and dirt footpath disappearing into the woods behind me.

This kind of impromptu traveling - especially in India - requires a little faith.  Faith to wait three and a half hours by the side of the road when someone tells you in broken English that a jeep to Khachapuri will come along.  Faith that when you get to a small village there will be a room available or a kind soul to take you in.  And so with a little faith in Sagy and my intuition, I started the steep climb through the woods towards what I hoped was Pala's Place.

The footpath up to Pala's is so steep that, walking with my backpack, I had to rest after only about ten minutes of climbing.  Luckily, at this point in time an angel in the form of Pala's son Puchin appeared and alleviated not only my concerns that I was about to be lost without a place to stay, but also the heavy load of my pack.  After some token resistance, I agreed to let him shoulder the weight, and watched in awe as the nineteen year old carried my bag the remaining fifteen minutes up the hill without breaking his stride or a sweat.

Arriving at the top of the hill I gave thanks to Puchin for his labor and, internally, to Sagy for his suggestion, for within moments I knew that Pala's was indeed a special place. In anticipation of our travels we often create idealized versions of the places we will visit, taking our cues from movies or guidebooks or conveniently incomplete tales from other travelers.  It is, of course, inevitable that once we actually arrive, we are let down by the reality of the place we've dreamed so much about.  This has happened to me more times than I can count.  But Pala's Place is the kind of place you fantasize about when you dream up a Himalayan vacation.  Pala's home, consisting of only a few wooden structures, sits at the apex of a hill from which the land slopes down from both sides, only to rise up again into lush green mountains.  When the clouds clear, one can see the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas rising up above these green hills to meet the sky.  Just beyond Pala's home and blooming garden is a Buddhist stupa surrounded by prayer flags and a monastery under construction.

Pala, an eighty-four year old Tibetan monk and former cook to the Dali Lama, greeted me from his bed, using the best of his English to explain that he was tired from the day's puja which involved six hours (six hours!) of chanting.  Though Pala's English was rudimentary, I like to think that over the two days I spent in his company we developed a good relationship based on eye contact, smiles, broken conversation and comfortable silences.  When more foreigners came in the final hours before my departure, Pala and I shared a smile and laughing eyes at the incessant talking provided by the newly arrived Japanese tourists.

So after two nights, some use of Pala's yoga/meditation room and some time at the sacred lake, I paid the $15 (about $7.50 a night) I owed Pala for the lodging and three deliciously home-cooked meals a day he had provided, and I was on my way out of Sikkim and on to Kalimpong, my last Indian stop.

By the way, I took pictures of Khachapuri from the spot the jeep dropped me off and the footpath up to Pala's in the hopes of including it in the post, but after an hour or so of struggling with the Kalimpong internet connection the first picture has still not won its proper place in the blogosphere.  So we go text only, sorry folks!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Himalayan Trekking Part 1: Sikkim

The journey from Darjeeling to Yuksom (the small village in Sikkim that serves as the trailhead for the trek I was to do) was a three-jeep endeavor.  Jeep #1 was filled with eleven people, including one on the roof and the Sikkimese man to my right who insisted on having a conversation despite that he spoke no English and I no Nepali.  Because the "road" we were traveling on was under "construction", we had to get out and carry our bags about 200 meters to Jeep #2, picking up three more people - including two children of about ten years old - to throw on the roof.  Jeep 2 took us to a transit hub of a city called Jorethang, and after a two and a half hour layover, we picked up Jeep #3 to carry us the rest of the way to Yuksom.

Riding along the Sikkim roads is a bit of an adventure in itself.  Your body is continually contracting into a smaller and smaller ball so that the additional passengers who join the ride en route can slide in.  Only jeeps can handle the pot-holed, rocky, winding roads that connect one village to another, and each time I climb into one of the vehicles, I can only think that the religious incantation (whether hindu, buddhist or general praise to God) that inevitably adorns the windshield will offer little comfort when we go careening off the side of the mountain thanks to the freewheeling driver.

So the jeep rides were an experience and along the way offered not only a view of the beautiful mountains, valleys, villages and elaborate monasteries of Sikkim, but occassionally also a glimpse into Sikkimese life.  For example, Jeep #3 came to an abrupt stop just outside of a village so that one of the passengers could pick up some fish from a hut on the side of the road; fish that would of course otherwise be unavailable in his village, still over two hours away.  By the way, if you're wondering how a crowded, winding and bumpy jeep ride can be made better, it is most definitely by having three and a half dead fish stored underneath your seat.

Anyway, in the end all the traveling fun was worth it.  Sikkim is a rather small part of India that is bordered by Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan.  In just about every aspect it is more similar to these Himalayan kingdoms than it is to the rest of India.  I absolutely adore the Sikkimese, who are, without exception, the warmest, friendliest, most trustworthy and helpful people (the man sitting next to me in the cyber cafe reading this post over my shoulder notwithstanding (hey guy!)).  The food, oh the food!  Tibetan, Sikkimese, Indian and Chinese like you'll never get anywhere else.

Besides my affinity for taking rides that leave me right on the verge of motion sickness, I came to Sikkim to do a little Himalayan hiking.  The walking  route was a 5 day trek from Yuksom up to Dzongri.  The company was Andrea (27), a Swiss woman with whom I made the trip from Darjeeling, Paul (40something), an Indian man living in the U.A.E with a head full of interesting facts and strong opinions, and Mark and Katie (27 both), a fabulous couple from the U.K.  Our fearless leader was Sanjay (19), a Sikkimese youth with two wives and a stated goal of becoming the youngest Sikkimese to summit Everest.

At about 42 miles total (including our side treks), with a cumulative vertical rise and fall of approximately 5180 meters (16,995 feet), the trek was quite strenuous, massively more difficult than the Inca Trail in Peru, my only prior trekking experience.  Our highpoint was 4350 meters (14,270 feet), which is pretty high (by comparison, Denver is at 1620 meters).  I was fine for our two nights at 4050 meters, but the climb up the last 300 gave me a pretty good altitude headache, which is somewhat disconcerting since its only about 85% of the altitude that I plan on hitting during my Nepal trek. Not only was the hike a feat of physical exertion, but our accommodations were rustic, to put it mildly.  At Dzongri my four trekking companions and I spent two nights sleeping shoulder to shoulder in sleeping bags and as much clothing as possible to battle the below freezing temperatures.  Our beds were thin, overused mats, laid on the wooden floor of a glorified hut.  But despite the hardships, the trek was fabulous, taking us through a multitude of terrains and providing great views of Himalayan peaks, including a close-up of Kangchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world (see picture below (not mine).  This blog is going multimedia!).

I fell in love with Yuksom, the dirt road village where all the trekkers, guides and porters begin and end their journey into the mountains.  Yuksom proper is a dirt road lined with just a few hotels and two dusty, outdoor restaurant stands.  Each restaurant has only one large circular table where a rotating cast of foreigners eat, drink and exchange travel and trekking stories.  Because of the remoteness of Yuksom and the intensity of the trek originating from its outer boundaries, only the most hardened trekkers and travelers make it to these tables, and over many a cup of chai I met some fascinating people, listened to stories that crossed the line from adventurous to crazy, and received some valuable travel advice.

I was pained to leave Yuksom and my trekking group - particularly Mark and Katie with whom I had grown especially close - but it was time to move on to Pelling, a slightly larger Sikkimese town, where I now sit typing.  Today I enjoyed a 3 kilometer walk to Pemayangtse, an ornate monastery down the hill from Pelling.  I also had the privilege of serenading a few locals on a rusty 5-stringed guitar that was sitting in one of the many hotel/restaurant/vantage points that line the Pelling road.  I'm not sure where the kink in the supply line can be found, but Sikkim is suffering a serious shortage of guitar strings, as this instrument was the closest to completion of the five or so I've seen thus far.  To the Sikkimese authorities: forget about the crumbling infrastructure (no problem, I am sure), get on the guitar string famine, pronto!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Darjeeling Unlimited

40 hours of traveling, 3 flights, a bus ride and a jeep trip courtesy of a 14 year old driver is all it took to get your boy from New Jersey to Darjeeling.  Day turned to night turned to day turned to night turned to day which had nearly faded to night before I finally got to my hotel room.  OMG, but the tea has made it all worth it!

I hadn't forgotten what a wild gal India could be, but I was nonetheless a bit ruffled during the first few hours of our reunion.  But after a few days of her familiar embrace I think I have my travel legs back under me and am feeling good.

This morning I took a hike down to an out-of-the way gompa that houses the original copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.  As I'm spinning prayer wheels and doing my gompa thing, a portly Tibetan monk comes waddling down the path, followed by an entourage of followers.  It was clear from his posse that this was no ordinary monk, and sure enough, one of the admirers told me he was "the powerful master, Something Something Rinpoche".  ("Rinpoche", pronounced rin-po-shay, is an honorary title meaning "precious one".  "Something", pronounced sum-thing, is a place holder I use when I can't remember the name of a Rinpoche.)  The flowing robes, the grace, bald... striking.

As the locals did not hesitate to let me know, it was an extraordinary stroke of luck that I (the only foreigner) happened to be at the gompa when Rinpoche came to visit.  The lama went about doing his gompa thing, which apparently was much more interesting than mine, since all the local people watched and admired as he did his prostrations and paid homage to the photographs of the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa which adorn the gompa.  Some members of his entourage were very interested in me obtaining the Rinpoche's blessing, going so far as to provide the traditional scarf for me to offer to the lama.  I went before the monk and offered the white scarf, and in return he waived his jedi hands over my head and muttered some words.  If I get nothing else from this trip of mine, at the least I will be walking away with a little strand of red string evidencing that I was blessed by a vajrayana buddhist master.  In the words of Bill Murray, "So I got that going for me, which is nice."

This afternoon I was eating an insanely delicious lunch of navratan korma when a Hindi version of Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon" started playing over the restaurant's radio.  I'm not yet fluent in Hindi, so I couldn't tell, but I can only hope that Boy George's ancient wisdom about karma ("Loving would be easy if your colors were like my dreams... red, gold and green") was accurately translated.

Tomorrow I leave Darjeeling for Sikkim to do a 5 day trek.  So I'm offline for a few days, but I will be back to tell you all about MOUNTAINS.

Gunga galunga, gunga-gunga lagunga.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bottoms Up!


Since my flight out of the USA is only some hours from now, I am just at this moment taking the big step and advertising this little blog to the world.  So as this post will be at the top for most people's first visit, let me say welcome, and remind you that the way this works is that the newest posts go to the top.  So you should read from the bottom up if you want the full effect, especially since the first post after (before) this one is a saga.  Or don't, and ruin the whole damn thing.

Until asia, enjoy!

BRC to Yosemite: Hitchhiking and Serendipity

Since Yosemite National Park is literally on the way from Black Rock City (the name of the temporary city in the desert where Burning Man is held) to Los Angeles (where I had to go to catch a flight back east), I had planned to spend 3 days in the park before leaving the golden state. Because the four hippie-style painted buses I had taken up to Burning Man were not leaving for LA until early monday morning, it made sense for me to try and hitchhike out of BRC to Yosemite sunday afternoon in order to maximize my time in the park.  

I had to laugh at myself as I stood out on the dusty playa under the weight of my bags, holding a sign reading "395 South to Mono Lake", hoping one of the thousands of cars of burners leaving that Sunday would be generous enough to pick up a stowaway. Sure enough, after about a half hour, an RV pulled onto the side of the road, and a child wearing a dragon-shaped hat popped out of the window and told me to hop on in. And so it was that I successfully hitched my first ride.  

The dragon-capped child was an 11 year old named Izzy and as I dumped my bags onto the floor of the RV, Izzy's father and my new chauffeur, Frank the Hippie, assured me that I had "caught the right ride, man." Frank, a dreadlocked man aged 50, offered me an orange and introduced his other son, 9 year old Dee, who smiled and proceeded to ask question after question about my Burning Man experience.  

It wasn't long until I realized my ride to Yosemite was going to be anything but seamless. As the traffic to leave Black Rock City slowed us to a halt, Frank informed me that he had been having some trouble with the RV, and that the battery might not be able to sustain a prolonged stoppage. As we sat in traffic, I offered to go exploring through the line of cars, and leaving all of my belongings in the care of Frank and the kids, I went searching for a Burning Man volunteer to see if we could somehow jump the line.  

I walked up the 7 lanes of stopped vehicles for about 3/4 of a mile and saw neither a person with authority to deal with our situation, nor an end to the traffic-jam. As I began contemplating walking back to my ride, the cars started moving, stirring up an intense dust storm. With visibility down to about 5-10 feet, I walked slowly back in the direction I had come, beginning to realize the terrible mistake I had made. Not only was I walking blindly through traffic in a dust-storm, without my goggles or anything to cover my nose and mouth, but because it was nearly impossible to see the cars passing mere feet away, there was the possibility I would miss Frank's car and be stranded, choking and blind from dust without anything but the clothing I was wearing. Trekking back carrying a large orange traffic cone so I might avoid an unexpected run-in with a car full of hippies, I cursed my rash decision to leave Frank. Some very kind and concerned burners stopped and offered me a bandana for my face and a jug of water, which I took with intense gratitude. Still, my worries intensified as I was passed by a bright yellow van, a vehicle I had noted on my way out as being behind Frank's RV in the line. Ironically, my only hope now was the Frank's RV had in fact broken down.  

I continued walking and finally, through the dust, I spotted stalled Frank's RV. Rejoice!! As the dust began to settle, the completely dust-caked reflection in the car mirror showed a man who looked like he had bathed in baking powder, laughing and shaking his head. I washed the playa out of my eyes and hair, and went around to see if I could help Frank jump the RV.  

As a New Yorker, I'm about as unfamiliar with automotive maintenance as can be, but I was told our problem was that the vehicle needed a new battery. AAA told us there were 350 cars broken down on the road out of BRC, and we would have to wait. And so we did. On the side of the dirt "road". For 10 hours.  

It was well past dark and somewhere around 2 in the morning when I awoke to spot 4 painted buses I recognized as being from my camp. I remembered that one of my campmates, Lester, had a car battery he had been using on the playa, so I ran across the lanes of traffic and ventured into the back of one of the buses, to the bed that I had slept in on the way up to Burning Man.  

Noah: "Lester... you up?. Lester, wake up." 
Lester: "Huh? What? Noah???" 
Jeff: "Noah??? What the hell?" 
Merriliee: "Is that Noah? Hi Noah!"  

As I messengered a car battery between from the buses that continued creeping up the line towards the exit and Frank's broken down RV, I weighed my options. I could cut my losses and grab my bags and jump back with my camp now on their way out, or stick it out with Frank and the kids. Enjoying the adventure thus far and feeling bad about leaving the family that had been so kind in picking me up, I decided not to leave Frank stranded and alone with the his boys. As I delivered Frank's $90 to Lester in payment for the battery, I thanked him and then watched as my most reliable ride out of Burning Man drove on down the road without me.

Lester's battery was the fix we needed (temporarily) and Frank decided that rather than battle the now 4-5 hours of traffic out of Burning Man, we would return to Black Rock City and spend the night. So after waking up very early the next morning in Frank's RV, we set out once again to leave the playa, only to again, break down on the line out. Trying to keep my sense of humor, I recruited as many burners as possible to push the RV the final mile or so out of the traffic jam (fyi - RV's are heavy!), where we got our final jump and got the RV running down a real, traffic-less road. We were home free!!!  

Until about an hour later when we ran out of petrol gas. While Frank tried to figure out whether the RV was refusing to start because of the lack of gas or the dead battery, I decided our time together had finally run its course. Fortuitously, the gas tank had hit E about 150 yards from a gas station (that didn't carry Petrol), and so every car of burners with California plates that entered the rest station was greeted by a very dirty Noah asking if they were going south.  

After about an hour I had my ride. I felt pretty awful leaving Frank and the kids, especially because the kids seemed so upset about it, but they were getting no farther than Reno that day and I had no choice but to move on.  

Ride #2 was David, Jenny and Valeska from Santa Barbara, who shared not only their functioning transportation, but also a sarcastic-but-kind sense of humor that I could not have enjoyed more. I'm not sure D, J and V were actually going my way to begin with, but they agreed to alter their route to help out a fellow burner in need.  

So I had lost a day, but I was back on track and moving through the mountains of California to a soundtrack of laughs and great conversation. Traveling down 395, David received a call on his cell phone that he said he had to take. As he pulled over to the side of the road so he could discuss without distraction, Valeska pointed out four painted buses that were stopped in an auto-repair shop on the side of 395. Yep. Laughing, I walked back to find my campmates, who should have been in Los Angeles by now. One of the buses had now broken down for a variety of reasons, one of which was a dead battery. A dead battery, they of course no longer had a replacement for, because Lester had sold Frank his. In any case, they weren't going anywhere so quickly, and many campmates, including Jeff, had already checked into a motel for the night.  

Others were trying to find a shortcut home. I had cut across a field to reach my campmates, so I didn't see Lester and his girlfriend Ani who were standing on the side of 395 trying to hitchhike back to LA. I missed the conversation between them and my new friends who had turned around to drive back and pick me up, but I was told it went something like this.  

Lester: "Thanks for stopping. You guys have room for two to LA?" 
David: "Sorry, your spot's already been taken by Noah." 
Lester: "What? By Noah? Like, Noah?? Is he in there?" 
David: "No, we bludgeoned him, left him on the side of the road and stole his bags."  

I must admit that up until this point, I could not help but think that had I only taken the easy route and left with my camp to begin with, or left Frank and jumped back in the buses early when I had the opportunity early monday morning, I would have been in better shape. So while I certainly wasn't happy to see my camp in distress, I couldn't help but laugh at how things had turned out. I gave Lester and Ani a hug, told them to pass one on to my buddy Jeff who was already in the motel, and got back in my ride.  

An hour or so later, we arrived in Lee Vinings, which was where I was slated to say goodbye to D, J and V, as I could stay in a motel and take public transport into Yosemite in the morning. Dropping me off, David was kind enough to look around a bit to try and get me set up, and as we explored the visitor's center, David noticed a man being told he would not be able to camp in the park this time of year without a reservation. As we went back to the car and began unloading my bags, this man asked if we were burners. We said yes, and he revealed that he was also a burner, looking to spend a few days in Yosemite. Well HELLLLLOOOOO Shlomo, welcome to the story!  

Since I was coming off a week of camping in the dusty playa, I had figured I'd be ready for a little "pampering" and before leaving for California, I had reserved in Yosemite a tent cabin with 2 proper beds, since Jeff thought he might be joining for some hiking and nature-loving. Jeff had bailed, and so I had an extra bed to spare. I happened to have the very thing Shlomo needed most in the world at that moment - a place to sleep in Yosemite - and he had what I needed most - a car.  

I had gotten on really well with D, J and V and so was sorry to leave them, but after some smiles and laughs about the whole ordeal, I said my goodbyes and got in the car with my new friend Shlomo for a trip into Yosemite.  

Not only was Shlomo's car invaluable in providing access to portions of the park that would otherwise be inaccessible, but because I was not relying on public transport into the park, it saved me a day. And so I arrived at my Yosemite lodgings right on schedule, with a roommate to share the cost of the lodgings and a new friend to hike with.  

Then I spent 3 days in the park, and it was awesome.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Burning Man

So first stop on Noah's world tour was a dried up lake bed in the middle-of-nowhere Nevada for a week-long festival called Burning Man.  I knew Burning Man was going to be a electronica music infused art festival SLASH party in the desert, but I really had no clue what kind of hippie freakfest I was getting myself into.  Note that  I use the term "hippie freakfest" in the most endearing way possible, because it really was an amazing, unique and magical week on what us burners call the playa.

The most common conversation I think I had over the festival week was discussing with other burners how impossible it is to describe Burning Man to someone who has never been.  It's a bit like trying to describe Las Vegas to someone who has never even seen a casino.  Maybe you will succeed in giving them the mental impression of one of the hotels, but they could not grasp the sheer overwhelming experience that is the Vegas strip.

Like Vegas, the mere sight of the Burning Man playa is simply outside the bounds of a single person's imagination.  Not only do you have no point of reference, but even if you did, the playa is a collaborative effort of 50,000+ artistic and creative minds.  Around every corner is another small piece of creative genius that is part of a greater whole.  So using words to describe BM is a joke, and photographs are a bit like showing someone pictures of a bunch of rocks and dirt and trees and telling them to imagine the mountain from which these pictures were taken.  So everyone comes up with their own way to describe the playa, but my favorite comes from my new friend Frank the Hippie, who describes it as "Disneyland on the moon."

Besides the visual and aural stimulus (I've never enjoyed a better week of music in my life), there's a whole communal element to the festival.  EVERYTHING is free, EVERYONE is open and friendly and kind and honest and contributing to the overall experience.  It's hard to talk any more about this stuff without sounding flakey, so I'll stop there.  My one "criticism" is that Burning Man is a bit of a dream.  A beautiful dream, but a dream still.  It's easy to be open and giving and mindful and selfless for a week, when you are partying in the desert and surrounded by 50,000 others doing the same.  But how we act in our everyday lives off the playa is where the rubber meets the road.

There's a lot more that could be said about the festival, someone could probably write a book (actually, a quick search on Amazon shows there are quite a few).  But I've already said 4 paragraphs of absolutely nothing, so I'll stop there.  If camping in a dusty desert without a shower for a week is down your alley at all, it's something you must check out.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


Greetings Earthlings.  From the bottom of my lungs a [person] be blowin' spittin his game.  Oh wut up?  Wut up, wut up?!?  Welcome to my BLOG, No-Blog.  Let's get the initials out of the way, shall we?

Hi!  My name is Noah.  As most - if not all - of you know, until very recently I was employed as a lawyer in New York at a rather large firm in what we in the biz call "biglaw"; that is, a shop of a few hundred attorneys.  That was until I decided it wasn't for me, at least temporarily, and I wanted to do a little traveling.  Now I know what you are thinking: A few hundred lawyers cooped up in a New York City skyscraper??  What in the world could be more fun and exciting than that?!?  Well right you may be, but I am determined to check it out for myself.

The Blog and Expectations
So after much internal debate I decided to blog this little adventure I'm undertaking.  If history is any indicator (wut up "Through the Eardrums"), I will be not so diligent about updating this thing.  But hopefully you'll get the highlights and it will be here when I want it, if not when you do.  Too bad suckers, it's my blog, you want more blog posts, start your own blog.  But don't let that deter you from checking for updates!
Also, you may have noticed by my outline formatting and overuse of commas that I write like a lawyer.  So if you know what promissory estoppel is, you're going to love this friggin thing.  Otherwise, sorry bro, deal.

The Plan
There is a loose travel plan, but I'm pretty sure my new friend Shlomo - who you will meet shortly - would be disappointed in me if I were to put it in ink.  And besides, as he says, it's bound to change anyway, so you'll just have to follow along and see where we go.  Surprises!  This blog's got it all!!  Let go and live in the moment Shlomo says.  And so in this moment, my "plan" is to finish my first blog post, continue listening to some amazing recently discovered music (Aeroplane - check it out!), and make my mother happy by cleaning out the closet of my room in my parent's house in NJ.  No more procrastinating Mom, I swear!