Monday, August 15, 2011

But Is It Made Out of Tigers?

Lasagne. Sinatra. Kathmandu.

And Tiger Balm. That goddamned Tiger Balm. It's everywhere. Just when you've sat down for some comfort food in a cafe where you didn't really expect to hear Hoboken's most famous former citizen, a Tiger Balm salesman is in your face, furtively whispering as if he were selling illegal drugs.

"Pssst, Tiger Balm?"

I'm beginning to think it's a metaphor. Maybe he IS trying to sell hashish. But then, what are the other whispering salesmen selling, the guys who open their palms to reveal a small packet?

"Transport? No? Hash then?"

Ah, Kathmandu. As restricted and policed as non-Chinese tourism is in Tibet, Nepal is equal amounts free-for-all. Tourism runs rampant, creating a competitive atmosphere that can sell you all the hash and Tiger Balm any one person could consume in an entire lifetime, that can produce hundreds of tiny cheap guesthouses (but can't quite make them appealing), where if a trekking tea house is too full, a backpacker can just sleep on the kitchen floor.

I prefer the free-for-all to the police state, but surely there has to be something better than these two choices.

Let's see what Bhutan has to offer in a few weeks. A tale of three mountain kingdoms, all offering completely different approaches to modern tourism. But does anyone get it right?

Meanwhile, I was tired. Tibet, like the time I may or may not have quietly visited Cuba a few years ago, was both fascinating and exhausting. My conflicted brain can't deal with so many questions at one time as in these two countries.

I rested, caught up on work, seemed to do laundry a lot, bought souvenirs for people participating in the souvenir program (link in top menu bar!), found that Hollywood Hair Salon could match my color, enjoyed a pedicure at a place called Foot Fetish, and wandered the alleys of Kathmandu, looking at stupas and shrines and men selling Tiger Balm or hash.

Eventually, I ran into my Chinese backpacker friends while I was ordering a schwarma at a little carryout in central Thamel. The kid in the hipster glasses spoke first, since his English was fluent.

"What is a schwarma?"

"It's a Middle Eastern thing...chicken and stuff wrapped in a flatbread."

"It's delicious," announced a Nepalese man sitting at the counter, chowing down on a chicken schwarma.

The backpackers all studied the schwarma.

"Did you find a room?" I asked.

Their faces fell.

"We saw many rooms. But they were all..."

"...awful?" I finished for them.

"Yes. So cheap but so dirty. Finally we just went to the one the man had taken us to when we got out of the taxi. All the rooms were the same."

"I also had this problem. I just paid more in the end."

They nodded. "We can't do that with our budget."

I understood. They probably needed to eat more schwarma and less restaurant food.

Then one of them who had been quiet all throughout the journey from the border to Kathmandu timidly addressed me for the first time.

"Have you seen the movie...Rings..." She conferred with her boyfriend. "Lord of the Rings?"

"Yes, the elf queen?" I smiled. "I look like her."

"Yes! You do!" My friends were pleased now that they'd called it.

"It's true. I am the queen of the elves."

We said our goodbyes and the queen of the elves took her non-elf-like schwarma back to her room.

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