The first 100 words


The first 100 words are the most important in any language. I've studied Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, German, Latin and Dutch with different degrees of commitment and success. I've also experimented with a few phrases in Indonesian, Filipino and now Nepali. 
Do yourself a favor and when you go on your next international trip, try to learn the first 100 important words or phrases of the local language. It's not too ambitious (you can make a big dent on the flight over) and the returns are always extravagant.

Locals are inevitably thrilled you've made the effort (with the exception of the French) and it will open countless doors that would have otherwise remained shut. You'll be amazed how far you can get with that 100 words. There's very little you won't be able to communicate, especially if you also enjoy charades...

Good luck pronouncing that!

What to do in Kathmandu?

When we were putting together the itinerary for our trip we reached out to as many friends as possible who might have knowledge of or contacts in the places we plan to go. We were overwhelmed by the response: introductions to locals and trekking guides across Nepal and Ethiopia, an invitation to visit the tea estate or a friend's family in Sri Lanka and thoughts on the best things to do in Indonesia. 

It's always good to have some insider tips when you land in a new country and one of our friends (thanks again!) went overboard with some absolutely fantastic advice for Kathmandu. It was so extensive that I want to share it here for anyone who's thought of visiting Nepal or wants to get a vicarious feel for its capitol:

Smog and prayer flags, welcome to Kathmandu
You will like Nepal. It's easy to move around because almost everyone speaks English- even cab drivers- and also because it's very cheap. I spent most of my six weeks in Kathmandu, so the places I will recommend you are in or close to Kathmandu. Ok, here I go:

1. Bhaktapur: this is an ancient town that was once the capital of Nepal. It is one of the several UNESCO's World Heritage that you can find in the country. All the buildings are made out of carved wood; there are several temples, tiny cute stores, and stone artwork. This was one of my favorite places. This is 30-40 minutes from Kathmandu (in taxi). You have to pay an entrance fee, which is a bit more than what you would pay at other ancient cities but it's worth (I don't remember how much exactly but I think it was the equivalent to $2 or $3 per person).

2. Boudha Stupa (or Boudhanath): This is a MUST! This is one of the most important places of prilgrimage for Bhuddists and believed to be built in the 14th century. The stupa is another UNESCO world heritage site. You will see a lot of Tibetan monks going around the stupa while praying. The place is just beautiful and has a very special energy. There are a lot of stores and restaurants. Look for the restaurants that have tables on the roof, so that you can have the full view of the stupa. I would not buy pashminas there - better to buy them in Thamel (see below). The entrance fee is about the same as that of Bhaktapur.

3. Thamel: this is like street market (just bigger). Tons of stores, cafes, and hostels (specially for trekkers and backpackers). If you're planning in doing some trekking, this is a good place to get first and second hand equipment. Always bargain! The price they give you is not the final price. This is true for most of Nepal, but particularly in Thamel. This is also a good place to get Pashminas, yoga clothes, traditional Nepali clothes and handcrafts, mandalas, etc.

4. Nagarkot: is a small village in the mountains that has probably the best views of the Himalaya. It is also very close from Kathmandu (about 40 min in car). There are tons of hotels and resorts around. You can go there and have tea in one of the hotels and have great views of the Himalaya. There is like a touristic center with small shops of traditional Nepali music, clothes, and art craft.

Urban pig herding
5. Patan: this is the second largest ancient town (the largest one is Bhaktapur) and is the closest to Kathmandu. If you go after 4 or 5pm, you can enter without paying the entrance fee. It's not as well preserved as Bhaktapur, but still worth going. It also has the wood carved buildings, a lot of temples, stores, cafes and restaurants. There is one building where a "sacred girl" lives---some people just go there to see her and pray. I didn't see this girl but I just mention it in case you want to check it out.

6. The Monkey Temple (or Swayambhunath): it's called the monkey temple because is full of monkeys that Nepalis considered "holy monkeys". Be careful with the monkeys, particularly if you carry food or a plastic bag that may look to them like food, because they will steal it (no joke!). This religious site also has a stupa, shrines, and temples. Theres's also a Tibetan monastery, a museum, a library, shops, restaurants, and hostels. The site has two entries: a long stairway of more than 300 steps (very very steep!) that takes you directly to the main temple (the view up there is very nice); the second entrance you can access by car and I would recommend to take a cab there. I know you two are very into sports so maybe you can adventure and go through the stairs :).

7. Pashupatinath: is also an ancient city where Nepalis cremate family members. The only thing that is really interesting to see is the actual cremation ceremony. It sounds creepy but it's quite interesting. I went with a friend and we were lucky to find a gentleman who did not mind to explain us all the meanings of the ceremony. On one side of the river, they cover the body with milk and flours and women pray and cry. After that, they move the body to the other side of the river and have a another ceremony to prepare the body for cremation (in this case only men participate). The body won't smell when burning, nor you will see the deceased. The bodies are covered with a white sheet and they burn them in a special wood that smells like mahogany. The entrance fee it's "expensive" (relative to what you pay at the other ancient cities) and---beyond the cremation ceremonies---there is only one really beautiful temple there but you won't be able to enter if you're not Hindu. So, I would give priority to other places first and if you have time and still want to check out the cremation ceremony you can still go.

8. I could not go to these places, but I lot of people recommended visiting Pokhara and Lalitpur. They are relatively close from Kathmandu, so if you have time you should consider going.

Things to have in consideration or not to do:

- You will be offered all over those flights to see the Everest. I took it and it was fine, but I don't think it's worth the money. Also, if the weather conditions are bad, you will have to reschedule the flight for the next day because they are only two flights per day.

- I'm not sure when are you leaving, but right now it's cold in Nepal. Most buildings don't have central hitters. For example, inside the airport is really really cold. So pack a lot of warm clothes!

- Water quality in Nepal is a big issue. You will notice that a lot of people drink hot water (boiling water). This is because even the bottled water can be contaminated. I would suggest you either drink hot water or get a coke or brand soda. You guys really need to be careful about the source of the drinking water.

- Transportation: cabs are very cheap and the most reliable way to get around (other than walking). No one there, not even the Nepali staff, recommended taking the regular buses. They are always very crowded, they break down very often, and you can be an easy target because they can tell you're not Nepali. Don't get scared--Nepal is pretty safe, but it doesn't hurt to be careful. Always negotiate the price with the cab driver before you get on the car. Some of them will offer you a special price if you agree to be picked up by them from the same place (sort of a round trip deal). It might be worth for some places, as you won't be at the ancient cities for more than 2-3 hours. But if you don't want to be rushed, you can always find cabs right outside the stupas.

If you are staying in central Kathmandu, you might get to some places by walking. I was able to walk to Thamel and Patan from the hotel. Ask wherever you're staying in. 

Food :

Locally grown produce anyone?
You definitely need to try Momos -- they are like dumplings and can be filled with vegetables, chicken, goat meat, or lamb. Tasty and very spicy. One of the traditional Nepali dishes is called dal-bhat-tarkari and it's literally a tray with small portions of lentils, rice or other type of grain, vegetable curry, and several (spicy) condiments to mix with the rest of the food. I liked dal-bhat-tarkari but momos were my favorite. The traditional Nepali tea (with milk on it) is also tasty. In some regions outside Kathmandu, they serve a special kind of tea (I don't recall the name) that has salt on it (yes, salt)---I did not like iwt, but maybe you will. Tea in general is a good alternative to drinking plain hot water. There's also an area in Kathmandu called Jhamsikhel where there are a lot of restaurants and cafes---some serve traditional Nepali food and others serve international food (French, Italian, etc.).

Cabs inside Kathmandu were never more than 200 rupees (about $2 or less). To other areas, like Bhaktapur or the Boudha Stupa, was a bit more -- maybe $4-$6. Some of these places are formally outside Kathmandu but if you look at the map, they are not that far away. So again, check with the hotel/hostel staff because you might be able to walk and maybe just get the cab on the way back if it gets dark. And remember to negotiate with the cab drivers, as the meters never work and you would be able to bargain. I always asked if they could do a better price and they did.

I don't know much about hotels because my hotel was selected and paid by the client. I stayed at the Himalaya Hotel (http://www.himalayahotel.com.np) -- It was a really nice hotel, so it might be expensive. I think hotels or hostels in Thamel might be a better option. Most trekkers stay there before heading to the mountains. Apparently the hostels and restaurants around have free wifi connection and their hygiene conditions are of higher standard than other areas of Kathmandu- mainly because it's very touristic and most trekkers are from the US or Europe.

I forgot to mention that you should not be out until too late--at least not walking. There's no lights on the streets and Nepal does not have the best infrastructure, so you can fall in a hole because it's dark and you can't see it. No joke, the streets have deep holes every few steps. If it gets dark, just take a cab back.

Have fun!

Book Review: A.I. Apocalypse

William Hertling is a software security consultant who's recently started to pump out some of the most interesting techno-thrillers out there. A.I. Apocalypse is the follow up to Hertling's breakout hit Avogadro Corp that follows the development of a rogue artificial intelligence by a Google-like company (techies will notice the clever play on Google's name).

A.I. Apocalypse follows the release of a computer virus developed along the foundations of evolutionary biology. The book is a thrilling page-turner that most readers will tear through in no time. Hertling is a software expert and the scenario he envisions is scary precisely because it's so possible with current technology that it seems almost inevitable.

Software is permeating literally everything we use, touch or do. Computers infrastructure has changed the world in ways we take completely for granted. Hertling presents a compelling and chilling view of what very well be around the next corner. Apparently the book is a cult hit at Google itself, so we all better stay sharp...


Buy someone lunch today

We are sitting in Terminal B at LAX awaiting the departure of our flight to Kathmandu through Singapore (we also stop for a refueling in Japan). Some alarm just went off in the airport as I started to write this post and apparently LAX thinks the best alarm sound is a constant, piercing, high-pitched wail so my brain feels like it's about to leak out of my ears. Can't fault them too much though given that I'm writing this on their free Wifi.

This last weekend was a mad rush up to the end getting everything in order. Dozens of things popped up: doing taxes and financial planning, getting our renter set up in our house, getting a prescription for an infection from Kaiser the day before departure, etc.

After a yummy shared breakfast in Santa Monica
We wanted to see our friends before heading out (and we hope they wanted to see us too!). Looking back now I realize that for the past two and a half weeks I've had almost every meal scheduled with someone. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Sunday (plus sometimes drinks or coffee as well). We've even 'traveled by meal,' making our way from San Diego to Santa Monica by treating friends along the way in exchange for rides that frog hop up the coast. It's a hell of a lot more fun than the train!

When we get back to the U.S. later this year we won't be able to maintain a social schedule that intense. But I definitely plan on devoting a lot more effort to proactively engaging with my friends and network. We can start by eating dinner with other people at least three times per week.

Although this recent regimen might seem exhausting, it was actually empowering. Humans are social animals and it was truly rejuvenating to spend so much time with those we care deeply about. Social networks are an integral part of our personal, professional and emotional lives. They're like gardens, they need active cultivation and irrigation. The fruit tastes a lot better if the tree is well cared for. It's humbling to feel the power of your community around you in such a visceral way. Plus, what better way to connect with someone than over a mouth-watering pair of lovingly crafted carnitas tacos with extra guacamole?! Go buy someone lunch today! It'll make their day, and yours...


P.S. Make sure to check out Drea's chronicles of our amazing adventures at www.dreacastillo.com