Doreen: Pre-trip

January 12, 2000

Today is about as good as any other day to start a journal about our planned journey around the world. Nothing is booked yet, and the only thing that is absolute is that in our hearts we are determined to go. After twenty years of dreaming about travelling around the world it’s finally within our reach.

After we returned from a one week Nova Scotia trip in July and realized that our next vacation was at least six months away, we decided it was time to put a calendar date to our dream. At first, February 2001 seemed as good as any date, but after consulting my Chinese astrology book I realized the year of the dragon (2000) was a great year for rats, and that if we left then we would get back well before the year of the horse (2002) when rats tend to get trampled. (This might be a good time to point out that, astrologically speaking, we are both rats - if you believe in that sort of thing). So now 2000 looked good cosmically, but the financials were not as promising. Saving became the primary task and ‘budget’ and ‘savings account’ were words that we started to use much more often than in the past. By sometime in August we decided that September of the next year was a possibility and swore we would not tell a soul about our harebrained idea until at least the new year. By the following week, not only did our family and friends know about our plans, but also the dental hygienist and our vet.

The next few months kept us busy planning the itinerary. Nepal, India, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand made the final cut. South American and Africa, would each have to be a trip on their own. Europe - love to, but, due to the expense, we’ll only make a brief stop in London to stay hello and goodbye to Bill’s relatives and friends. Eastern Europe and Russia, although not as expensive, were just not viable due to our time schedule. China - maybe someday, but not a priority. Everywhere else sort of got axed for one reason or another.

January 13, 2000

For the next several months we will now have to focus on our big budget items. First, the airplane ticket. After many months of research we’ve decided to buy all the tickets prior to departure. This may be a costly mistake – world travelers seem to enjoy purchasing tickets on the fly, which allows more flexibility - but we decided to book and pay for all flights now before any grown-up, rational thoughts enter our brains. Such as: we should be saving for retirement, a year is a long time to leave the work-force, we’ll be broke and unemployable when we get back, etc. Also, we decided to purchase consolidator tickets, which are less restrictive and cheaper than the 'around the world tickets' offered by commercial airlines. We were quoted a rate of $2,400 each, which will cover most of our travels apart from the Australian and New Zealand portion. It also doesn’t cover an unfair trip we’ll be forced to take to Hawaii so Bill won’t lose his resident alien status. Supposedly, a resident alien has to return to the US every 6 months, or else. We’re not really sure what 'or else' is but we don’t what to upset the immigration lads. Conservatively speaking, our tickets should total around $3,500 and they’ll be purchased sometime in May.

The second expense is the laptop computer. We’ve got a vague idea of what we want, (a very light one), but aside from that a ton of research is necessary. Less expensive but just as important is a telescope. This item is not on every traveler’s packing list, unless of course they’re deranged, hard-core, thrill seeking birders. Yes, not only will we be enthralled by the Taj Mahal but equally ecstatic about the Rufous-vented Prinia. Until just now I didn’t know that bird existed but now it’s my lifelong quest to see a Rufous-vented Prinia. Other items, like backpacks, hiking boots, rain gear, etc. will be purchased throughout the year.

January 17, 2000

Over the weekend Bill and I accomplished some very important tasks which we now feel better about. For the first time since we decided to take this trip we evaluated our expense account and it was not a pretty sight. We're a lot further way from traveling than we thought. We need to take some drastic measures if our departure date stands. Absolutely, positively, no more dining out, (or at least not twice a week), no more get-away weekend birding trips until the big one, (or unless a rarity occurs within a reasonable vicinity of our home), and a limited beverage intake, (excluding weekends). So much for the business class tickets to the eco-lodge hidden in paradise. Realistically, economy tickets with hope of bulkhead seats and youth hostels which are friendly to the aging.

On a much brighter note, we did purchase a telescope for a lot less then we anticipated. The reason we had to buy another scope is that our Nikon is excellent but too heavy to take around the world with. The new scope weighs less than 20oz and was under a hundred bucks. Next week we’ll take it to our favorite birding spot and see just how much quality was compromised.

Laptops also got an eyeing this weekend. Although we are die-hard Mac fans, we’re probably going to go with a PC. The Mac Ibook is about 7 pounds whereas the mini PC’s are just about 3 pounds. That’s about as much technical information I’ll be able to communicate regarding the computer.

January 22, 2000

On Thursday Bill and I braved the first winter snowstorm to met with our travel doctor for a consultation. The list of vaccinations that we’ll need seem endless, or maybe I should say expensive. The rabies shots alone will be $450 for each of us. The consultation turned into a real shot in the arm, literally, when we each received our first round of hepatitis A shots. Before Bill and I went to see the doctor we had decided not to take Larium (to combat malaria) due to the all the reading we’ve done on the web. Our decision was to take Doxycyclene because the side effects seemed to be less risky. Now, after talking with the doctor, we’ve decided to try the Larium and if we encounter psycho-paranoid mood swings, then we’ll switch to Doxycyclene. Exactly when we decide it’s the drug and not our normal New York style paranoia should be interesting.

One of the reasons we had to visit the doctor several months before departure is that the hepatitis A vaccination is a two shot deal with six months in-between doses. Another reason is to space the visits over the next seven months so the economical impact won’t be as severe. Most of the vaccinations we’ll be taking would not be recommended if our stay was shorter and limited to the major cities but, since we’ll be birding for much of the time, rural areas and mosquitoes come with the territory.

January 31, 2000

Last week we purchased a Sony Vaio computer. Yikes. I’m not sure, but maybe we should’ve stayed with a Mac. Bill spent six hours trying to remove several annoying icons from the desktop. I had difficulty with everything. The following day we decided to put the computer away until we get a copy of Windows for Dummies. In the coming months we’ll slowly wean ourselves off our Mac and learn all about the wonderful world of Windows.

This past weekend we took a road trip to Connecticut to visit my parents and then to Rhode Island to visit Liz. This was the first time we saw her new condo and the future temporary home for our three cats. Her place is great and both Bill and I couldn’t be happier that our cats will be in the best of hands.

On the way home from Liz’s we stopped off in Connecticut to bird at Hammonasset State Park. This was the first chance we had to evaluate the new scope and tripod. The scope is passable. It did allow us to identify a Rough-legged Hawk sitting in the conifer trees about a quarter of a mile away. This was not only our first US sighting of this bird, but also a much better view than our original sighting in England. The tripod, on the other hand, may poise some problems; it’s lack of height might prove to be too much for Bill’s back. The need to travel light versus comfort and familiarity seems to be an ongoing struggle for us. My fear is that we’ll end up traveling around the world with lightweight crap.

February 15, 2000

I’ve made progress with the computer. I know how to find Hearts and haven’t lost a game yet. The thrill of victory! Speaking of hearts, yesterday was Valentine’s day so Bill and I broke our economy drive and went to John’s Restaurant on 12th Street. It has the best, bar-none, Eggplant Parmesan in NY. After dinner we rented one of my favorite movies "Kiss Me, Stupid" which I would highly recommend anyone to watch on any occasion. Although this movie was considered vulgar when it was first released, nowadays it seems more of a romantic comedy with a gentle twist, satirizing greed, ambition, and sexual morals.

Since my last entry we’ve acquired a few more 'toys' for the trip. Mosquito net, Swiss Army knife, inflatable pillows, and some more odds and ends. We have also been honing our itinerary - we’ve decided to skip Singapore so we could add days on to Australia. We found a pelagic tour that leaves Wollongong, Australia on the fourth Sunday of every month. So, although we might be vague on the other 364 days of our trip, we know that on Sunday, June 24, 2001 at 6:45 a.m., we’ll be 80km south of Sydney. That narrows things down a bit. This will give ourselves almost a month to travel from Darwin through Alice Springs to Adelaide, then on to Sydney. We’re guessing that this should be enough time to bird, enjoy and drive, and if it’s not we can always sacrifice enjoy.

Aside from Australia, we’ve worked on India’s routing and added Tibet to our list. We’ve e-mailed a few tour companies in Kathmandu that offer trips there and from their responses we’re considering a Landrover drive in and a flight out. This adds a couple hundred dollars onto the trip, bringing the total cost to around $1,000.00 per person for eight days in Tibet. Of course, if money is a problem than we can kiss the Landrover goodbye and grin and bear the bus ride.

February 26, 2000

The last weekend of the slowest birding month is finally here. February is a harsh month in the northeast, because of the combination of bad weather and the limited amount of birds around. Only a few more weekends till our warblers come back, hurray! Thanks to our strategy of buying trip supplies well in advance, this winter we spent more time in camping stores than outside in 20 degree weather wondering where the ducks go when the pond freezes over.

This past week we booked our first week’s accommodation in Nepal. Although Bill was just trying to clarify the weekly rate, it somehow got translated as haggling, and we ended up with an exceptional deal – we hope. Although it’s tempting to book everything in advance online, the only hotel bookings we will definitely make will be for the nights we fly into a new town, so we can take advantage of the free airport pick-ups offered by many hotels. We also confirmed our Australian pelagic trip for next year - we really had to beg the guy to take our reservations so far in advance (for July 23, 2001). Yes, it’s pathetic, but it’s very important to us that we go on this tour. We also contacted a jungle resort in India by fax after some unsuccessful telephone attempts. Unfortunately they don’t have their Christmas rates available yet, but quoted us last year’s prices. Even more unfortunately, we can’t afford last year’s rates.

March 5, 2000

Many kudos to our dear friend Liz who decided to take it upon herself to get us on the right track to cyberspace. Quite impressively, she taught herself the magic of web building and encouraged us to get motivated. We now have a web site with a picture of an Australian Crane and a brief introduction by Bill. Except for a minor problem - the apostrophes have turned into question marks - it?s looking good. We must visit Liz so she can coach us on maintaining and updating the site. We should also thank the legendary Wreckless Eric for the song "Whole Wide World", which is what Bill and I decided to call our site. Red-faced loons and wandering tossers were some of the names we chuckled about but, for various reasons, Whole Wide World was the keeper.

June 24, 2000

Three months have gone by and the only update made on the web site is that the question marks have been changed back to apostrophes. We must apologize for our neglect and blame it on an exceptional spring migration. Twenty-one species of warblers in one day is nothing to sneeze at.

Last week we decided to go ahead and buy the tickets for the first six months of our itinerary, which would bring us to Bangkok. At first we wanted to buy all our tickets in advance, but since our itinerary has changed again, (Turkey added, Tibet eliminated, and Portugal possibly winning the European Championship), we’ll wait and purchase the rest of our tickets in Thailand .

June 28, 2000

Today the tickets arrived via Federal Express. I came very close to giving the FedEx man a great big hug. Luckily I was able to restrain myself. We booked our tickets through Airtreks.com, and I must say it was a pretty painless experience.

We’ve also been booking some hotels via the internet. We have the Hotel Turkmen in Istanbul reserved for four nights, with an airport pick-up. I was extremely pleased with this find because it’s cheap and the price includes breakfast. Unfortunately, after much research, the only review I found on the web regarding Hotel Turkmen said it was terrible but cheap. Well, maybe not the most encouraging way to start the trip but they were very nice and did answer our e- mails promptly, and anyways, how terrible can terrible be? We’ll keep you posted.

July 11, 2000

For various reasons we’re still having difficulties sorting out our reservations for Delhi and Goa. We e-mailed the Amit Guest House in Delhi, waited several days, got a reply and sent another e-mail asking for confirmation of our reservation and time of arrival. We waited several more days, resent the e-mail a few times, and then received a reply from Hotel 55 (strangely enough, another place we’d considered) confirming our reservations…huh? Somehow we’re totally lost in India and we haven’t even left the apartment yet. Anyway, our confusion led us to do more research and we found a website for the Raja Hotel in Delhi and it’s sister hotel, the Solluna Resort in Corbett National Park. The resort seems fairly reasonable ($60.00 per cabin) compared to many other lodges located in the park. They also provide transportation between the two hotels. Although it’s not cheap, ($67.00 for an air-conditioned taxi), we’re assuming it’ll be easier than dealing with Delhi’s dynamic infrastructure. At this point I must say we’re trying not to jump to any conclusions about India, but we’re also aware that it may be our most challenging county, and a slow and gentle approach may be better. OK, we’re wimps.

The Goa reservations present a different degree of difficulty. The first problem is the timing of our arrival in Goa - it’s peak holiday season and, aside from all the hotels tripling in price, most places get booked many months in advance. Of course we’re well ahead of the booking curve, but the ideal place we would like to stay doesn’t have a telephone. Do we risk showing up on December 23 without a place to stay? (Oh, no rooms available…. but the manger does have a ocean view!) The second problem is that Panjim Inn requested a deposit of $75.00 to hold our reservation, but the total for the three nights should have only been $60.00. I’m sure if we'd contacted the hotel again a more reasonable rate might have been agreed upon. But since we weren’t emotionally attached to the place, and more importantly it didn’t have cable TV or a pool, we decided to move on.

July 29, 2000

Everything’s coming up Millhouse! We now have a website, and for the most part, it’s working. I can’t believe we got it together. I use the word ‘we’ very loosely here, since all the laurels go to Bill. We, (again loosely), discovered that tripod.com and Front Page work well together and an added bonus is that tripod.com offers 50MB of free space. 

Bill and I decided to take the month of August off so we can work on the website, clean the house, pack up our stuff, and visit our friends and relatives before our trip. I’m confident that we’re ahead of schedule, but people who have left home for extended periods of time say the last few weeks tend to be the most stressful and chaotic. I guess we’ll find out shortly. 

August 9, 2000

We’re back, after surviving another Cape Cod family vacation. Overall it’s a wonderful experience being with kind, caring and humorous siblings. The only family member who tends to push the envelope is my dad. How can a man, who’s so hard of hearing that he has the TV volume at an ear-bleeding level during the day, enforce quiet hours after 10 p.m.? Or proudly tell complete strangers that I’m travelling around the world but refuse to let me out of his sight once the sun sets? Thank god he’s very endearing or I’m sure a mutiny would have occurred many years ago.

Anyway, on the morning of our departure to Cape Cod we got an e-mail from the Raj Hotel in India saying that they had not received the deposit we wired to them two weeks ago. This was a little upsetting because we’ve never had to provide proof of a wire transfer before and we only feared the worst. We didn’t have time to double-check whatever receipts we’d saved from the transfer and assumed all might be lost. To add to our anxiety, we’d also sent a second transfer to another Indian hotel the day before, and were now worried that money would be lost too. Unfortunately there wasn’t anything we could do until we returned to New York on Tuesday.

Today we went directly to Chase Manhattan Bank, armed with a copy of the bank transfer form and their letter of confirmation, ready for a battle. The bank person was extremely helpful and actually started a small brawl with whomever she contacted by telephone. Although we’re still not clear as to what the problem is, we now think we haven’t totally lost the money (yet). Our bank is going to put a trace on the transfer and we’ll call back in a few days. Thankfully we’re still in New York and have time to sort this sort of thing out. Today we also received an e-mail from the second hotel confirming receipt of that particular transfer, which made us feel much better.

August 18, 2000

Well, what can I say except we are dumbfounded. A few days ago we received an e-mail from Marc Brosius, (author of Marc Brosius’ Round-the-World Trip website) asking why we had to fly to Hawaii to maintain Bill’s resident alien status. He explained that, unless the laws have changed, a simple form will allow residents up to two years travel outside the US. This was hard to believe, since we’d hired an ‘expert’ immigration lawyer to advise us on this situation and she’d never mentioned form I-131. We originally hired her because Bill’s green card was going to expire this year and we wanted an ‘expert’ to expedite the renewal process so that it wouldn’t get re-issued while we were out of the country. That part of our deal with her worked out fine, but Bill specifically asked her how long he could stay outside the country before jeopardizing his status. Based on her ‘expert’ advice (and a lawyer’s advice ain’t cheap) we decided to return to US soil half way through our trip. This would mean a costly and exhausting detour to Hawaii, but we just didn’t think to question the information she provided.

Today Bill contacted the lawyer and yes, she is aware of form I-131 and yes, she will fax that to us. I’m still in shock that we received better information via the internet - for free. Thank you Marc! The only problem now is that the form will take a couple of months to process, and we’ll be out of the country when/if it arrives. If we only knew about this back in January. Oh well…. what was Shakespeare’s quote regarding lawyers?

Now on to bankers. The money we wired to Delhi has still not arrived. Our bank tells us that money wired to India can take up to two months to get to its final destination, due to the State Bank of India dragging its heels. Fine, I believe them. They’re the experts.

August 29, 2000

A brief update before our morning chores begin. Our backpacks are packed and waiting for d-day. They seem heavy but until we’re on the road I’m not sure if there’s anything we can live without - well, aside from the extra large vitamin tablets that Bill refuses to leave behind. Scurvy, it seems, may be our number one enemy on the road.

We also have visas for Nepal and India. Both were pretty easy to obtain, but I have to add that calling the embassies in advance and checking their visa application hours saved us any unnecessary trips uptown.

All our precious stuff is now in storage, or accidentally tossed out, but that’s something to worry about on another day. The last two details we need to address before we leave are the cleaning of the apartment, (which we’re in the middle of), and the transfer of our cats to Rhode Island, which we’ll do on Friday.

September 5, 2000

Let’s hope that tomorrow doesn’t turn into a scene from "The Out-of-Towners". Today I telephoned a car service to schedule tomorrow’s ride to Kennedy Airport. I was told that horrific traffic problems are being caused by the United Nations conference and that tomorrow will be the worst day due to Fidel Castro’s arrival. It was strongly recommended we schedule the car pickup two hours earlier than usual.

This weekend we said our good-byes to my family, our cats, and our best friends. It was the weekend which I’ve been dreading since the beginning, but thankfully everyone (apart from our beloved cats) was extremely supportive and excited about our adventure.

Well comrades, it’s all down to the next 24 hours. Tomorrow we’re off (or stranded on the corner of 3rd and A.)

Bill: Pre-trip

Two questions which need to be addressed at this point:

  1. What the hell is all this crap about travelling around the world? You’re forty, for godsakes, not eighteen. Grow up.
  2. Birdwatching? It’s not bad enough that you get up in the middle of the night to go and stand in a swamp and stare at some stupid birds every weekend, now you have to make a career out of it? What the hell are you thinking?

Fair enough. There are usually at least as many reasons for not doing something as there are for doing it. In fact, there are those who maintain that most, if not all, of the problems in the world could be solved by people concentrating on doing as little as possible. The !Kung people of the Kalahari, if left to their own devices, manage to do quite well on a twenty hour work week and what I’d like to know, especially on Monday mornings, is what they know that I don’t. And if twenty hours isn’t pushing it a bit.

If we were going to go and live with the !Kung for a year, or study at the feet of a Taoist master, high on a mountain in some inaccessible region of China, then maybe I might feel a little more smug about the decision that Doreen and I have made to take a year off from this madcap whirl of city life. But since our plan basically amounts to chucking it all in and bumming around for a while, maybe we need to offer something more of an explanation. After all, people half our age are worried about their pension plans and we’re getting ready to blow nearly all the cash we have. On birdwatching. People might wonder whether we’re irresponsible, stupid, or just terminally self-indulgent.

Well, maybe a little of all three - why change the habits of a lifetime? We’re just being a little more organized about it than usual. We‘ve been researching, scheduling and itemizing this thing for a year now; we’re very hard workers when a project has no material gain involved. And yet people still accuse us of not having any long term plans! Why, this is the longest range plan we’ve ever had.

The short answer to question one is: we’re going to travel around the world because we want to and because we can. Like the dog in the joke. You can learn a lot from dogs.

Explaining so ridiculous a venture:

Where did it come from, this crazy desire to travel around the world, to deliberately encounter all kinds of aggravations and hardships just for the thrill of seeing new things? There's no simple answer, of course. Doreen originally planned to circumnavigate the globe over fifteen years ago, at the age when you're supposed to do this type of thing. As far as I can tell she ran out of money while waiting for her standby flight at JFK, lost her all clothes when her luggage got re-directed to Switzerland, and ended up working in London for six months before returning to America. While stranded in England she established a network of connections that eventually led to our meeting here in Manhattan, and we've been inseparable ever since.

Parenthetically, there's an obscure post-punk record by Wreckless Eric (on Stiff Records, pop pickers) called "The Whole Wide World" that ponders the question: if everyone in the world has only one true love, what do you if yours is on the other side of the planet? You get the hell out of your home town and find them, that's what you do. (Apparently this song is used on the soundtrack of a cheesy teen film set in the eighties called "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole". This is the type of essential information you're going to get on this site. You'll wonder how you ever lived without it). You might ask why this site is called The Whole Wide World given that we've already met, but let's not be picky.

My own reasons for embarking on this deranged trip are a bit more hazy than Doreen's. For the last fourteen years I've been living in a foreign environment anyway and every trip we've taken in this big old country has been, for me, a journey into the mysterious and alien. With ever diminishing intensity, of course - you can't live somewhere this long and not become gradually absorbed into it. Just look at David Bowie on that ancient BBC TV special, when he behaved so oddly that Nic Roeg cast him as an alien in "The Man Who Fell to Earth". When asked what he thinks of America, he replies that there’s a fly in his milk, and that fly’s getting a lot of milk. Hmmm. I see. But what I want to know is, what was he doing drinking milk?

I also have to add that for many people living here in NYC, the rest of America is something of another country. Many regular Americans seem to think that all the freaks end up here, and vice versa, and they're all right. But that’s really not enough anymore - especially when so much of what made our chosen home special has lost its lease, been renovated, and turned into a designer clothing store. (Ever seen "Invasion of the Body-Snatchers"? It can happen to cities, too). Gentrification issues aside, working to live is the same in any place, and we started getting enough flashes of hamsters on wheels to want to abandon the whole concept and just get the hell out - in a very methodical, middle-aged fashion, of course. I don't think too many acid casualties setting off on the hippie trail had spreadsheets of their proposed expenses and itineraries, but times change and we ain't no spring chickens anymore. In fact, now that I think of it, being a little kid living in Earl's Court during the late sixties and early seventies (a part of London known at the time for its transient Australian population) may have planted some travelling seeds in my mind. It seemed like wherever you looked there was an aging Volkswagen van with a handwritten sign it the window saying "one more guy and three chicks needed for trip to Afghanistan." I always used to wonder how many of these wrecks even made it past Calais. Cynical even then, you see.

Go on, explain birdwatching, then.

As for the second question, the birdwatching habit, well that's a little more thorny. People are often surprised that two seemingly normal individuals such as ourselves are interested in such a thing - but then again, anyone who considers us normal probably doesn't know us that well to begin with. One might posit the theory that any human activity you care to mention makes no sense at all unless you're interested in it in the first place. (Try explaining Super Bowl Sunday to a Martian. Or antiquing. There are even, god help us, fans of Turkish rock music out there, whiling away their sad and lonely days by searching the internet for any reference to their music of choice and sending long, tedious e-mails to anyone who may have made a slighting reference to their pet hobby.  Believe me, I know). The only real reason any kind of behavior seems sane is that a substantial percentage of the general population engages in it. But don’t let appearances fool you - every decorative plate collector you meet is just a foot fetishist who got lucky. The tables could turn at any minute and then it would be those filthy plate collectors scuttling around in the shadows, discovering they’ve inspired Madonna’s next video. So watch it.

Even for social deviants, however, money talks loud and clear. The amount of cash that birdwatchers manage to spend is significant enough for shopkeepers to laugh at us only behind our backs, and softly at that. And yet we don’t have one single show running on The Nashville Network. The reason I mention this is that I’m still thinking about the inherent absurdity of contemporary leisure activities and there seems to be dozens of hunting shows per day on TNN. Not fishing – hunting. (Not to imply that hunting is absurd, or even wrong, of course. Them folks got guns). All I’m trying to say here is that birdwatching, as silly and inconsequential as it may be, is no less silly and inconsequential than a good many other pastimes. And safer. A lot less people get killed in birding incidents than you might think, and the birds seem to prefer it to hunting too.

So how did we get into birding in the first place? Again, many factors contributed. Giving up smoking was a start - that enabled us to walk more than thirty paces without having to sit down for a good rest. By the time our lungs had recovered sufficiently enough for us to walk north of Fourteenth Street, we began to notice that the urban jungle was becoming progressively less appealing to us. We started to find ourselves in canoes, searching for absent beavers while serving as mosquito fodder, desperately trying to connect with the natural world. We found that we enjoyed the serenity and the scenery, even if we did fail to find anything more impressive than a chipmunk. It slowly became apparent to us that life in the great outdoors is not as instantly gratifying as the Discovery Channel would lead you to believe. Any mammal with an ounce of survival instinct was staying well away from us clod-hopping representatives of the human race, and with good cause. Dusk after dusk, as we gently bobbed on the northern lakes, as our blood was slowly drained, it gradually began to dawn on us that there were birds pretty much all over the place. Maybe, we thought, we should have a look at them.

Nature’s glory is one thing, but birding as we know it could not exist without the fieldguide which, like so many things in modern life, has its roots in the Western obsession with counting and classifying. That mania reached a fever pitch in the nineteenth century, when eccentric Victorian botanists and mapmakers girdled the globe, notebooks and butterfly nets firmly in hand. And not all of them were merely acting out their anal-retentive compulsions - they knew that a known world is a world that can be manipulated. Unfortunately, it does take the magic out of things a little when there are no more sea monsters and no more areas on the map marked ‘unknown’, but there is a certain beauty in knowledge for its own sake, a strange thrill in realizing that something is quantifiable. The fact that there's a finite number of bird families and species in existence is somehow reassuring. Knowledge gives a sense of control in a big and scary universe - an utterly illusory sense of control, but it's a comfort nonetheless. When I found a copy of the Audubon Society fieldguide to the animals of North America in our friend Liz's apartment I had a small epiphany. (Thanks Liz - it's all your fault).  There was something oddly exciting about that fieldguide. A vast unknown seemed to shift into focus. A sense of possibilities emerged. Do ceramic frog collectors get the same rush when they find their first price guide?

The Glossy Ibis incident

One thing that had been increasingly preying on my mind about living in New York was the absence of those long, glorious summer evenings that you get in England. OK, so you only get a good one about once a year, but they're damn good when the weather smiles on you. If the long, dark, dismal nights of winter are just one of the many disadvantages of living in the northern reaches of this planet, then the long summer evenings almost make up for it, and I was missing them. New York City is quite a bit closer to the equator than my home town of Bristol – it’s about on a par with Madrid - and consequently there’s less variation in the amount of daylight you get here. Every summer I would begin to get twitchy and want to head north for strong beer, bad food, and long evenings bobbing gently outside an empty beaver lodge. We began a long and enduring relationship with Canada and discovered what a strange country it is. Like the USA in so many ways, but sadly lacking in the gun death and health insurance premium departments.

Like many compulsions, this twitchiness began to manifest itself in a craving for stronger doses, a powerful desire to get as far north as we conceivably could. So one year we made the quite logical decision to take our allotted two weeker in Alaska. A visit to the land of the midnight sun was a pretty exciting prospect, and the fact that it harbored abundant wildlife and massive amounts of unspoiled wilderness didn't hurt, either. The previous year we'd been particularly taken with the whales of the St. Laurence Estuary, and we needed more and bigger thrills. The Alaskan trip was going to be expensive, certainly, but we justified it to ourselves by saying it would be a one-off, the trip of a lifetime.

Planning our itinerary, we began to notice that Alaska is one of the world's birding Meccas. We thought, well, maybe we should learn a little bit about this birdwatching thing - you know, just stick our toes in the water, try it out once or twice so we'd get a bit more out of the trip. Good plan. Like the one about smoking just one bowl of crack to see what it's like.

Before we'd succumbed to the magnetic pull of the north, we'd taken a couple of days to drive south to Assateague Island - or, as we called it, That Place We Can't Pronounce. Back then, our idea of a vacation was to rent a car, drive as far away as possible in the time available, watch cable TV and drink beer in motel rooms along the way, then drive back. It might not sound like much to you, but it worked for us at the time. On this occasion, in addition to an accidental driving tour of Delmarva’s chicken farms, we’d spent the afternoon at Assateague Island, a state park where feral horses roam free. (Free until they're rounded up and sold, but we won't dwell on that. It spoils the overall effect). Visiting the visitor center, I was particularly impressed with the interactive horseshoe crab display - any surviving relative of the trilobite is alright with me. And the horses were a good bet for us at the time, being large, diurnal, and generally hard to miss. So we strolled around the nature trails, read the information plaques, and enjoyed the scenic views just like anyone else. Presumably there were birds around as well, but as usual we failed to notice them.

The next day, after spending the night drinking beer and watching bad cable TV in one of Delaware’s fine motels, we boarded the Lewes – Cape May ferry. As it set off we stood on the deck and scanned the horizon for whales or sea serpents and ignored the various species of gulls that flew by. For all we know we may have missed a Yellow-nosed Albatross that morning. After disembarking in Cape May, we parked the car, failed to find anywhere still serving lunch, and headed back to New York. Nice town for a visit.

Some time later, when we were planning the Alaskan trip, Doreen said she’d heard Cape May was a good place to bird. From whom I have no idea. We'd liked it well enough when we passed through, so decided it would make a good weekend getaway for our birding warm-up. We set off on a Saturday morning, stopped at every single service station for exciting road supplies, enjoyed a good lunch in Cape May (somewhere was open), and strolled around the town a bit. The only moment of tension occurred when, checking into a motel, the proprietor suddenly asked if we were birders. We didn’t know what to say, and thought we might be asked to leave town as undesirables (always something of a worry for us). He was only trying to offer us a special birder’s discount, but for a moment we felt like imposters caught in the act. What act, we weren’t sure. By the time we got around to actually trying out this birding thing, it was getting late and rain was in the air.

Cape May is nothing if not geared to birders, and even rank sub-amateurs such as ourselves were able to find the bird observatory headquarters and get directions to some sites of interest. We set off to the South Cape May Meadows and, armed with my dad’s ordinance survey binoculars and a camera, ventured bravely in. Immediately, we saw a small flock of strange and exotic looking birds. They were about two feet tall, glowed with coppery undertones, and looked vaguely Egyptian. Even at that stage, we could tell we weren’t looking at sparrows. We began rifling through our fieldguide (the Audubon one – in retrospect, not the best choice) and were utterly unable to figure out what we were looking at. Surprising, really, considering what distinctive creatures they were. When we saw a group of people approaching us, we were about to ask them what kind of birds were there, but they beat us to it. They had no idea either.

I’m not sure if by this point we’d begun to suspect that we’d discovered an entirely new species, but we hit upon a plan of photographing them and then figuring out their identity later. It would have been a good plan if there was film in the camera, so we drove to the 7–11, bought some film, and rushed back. But being inconsiderate and working entirely on their own agenda, the birds had left without us. However, that night in our motel room we carefully scrutinized the pages of our fieldguide and were eventually able to crack the code – we realized we’d been looking at a bunch of Glossy Ibis. We knew what they were - suddenly the entire universe was within our reach. A blinding flash hit us between the eyes, heavenly choirs began to sing, the room was suffused with an unearthly light, and we felt the presence of something beyond the merely temporal. We had ID’d our first species. We had become birders.

And the Ibis were nice enough to be there the next morning when we went back to see if we could manage a better look. Better still, when we learned more about their habits we discovered that we had seen this particular flock at the very earliest time they were known to return to Cape May. They were quite possibly the first of the year.

Doreen: England

September 9, 2000

The trip to JFK, which we fretted about prior to departure, ended up getting us to the airport in almost record time (of course). On one hand, we were relieved to be at the airport, on the other hand we now had 4 1/2 hours before departure. To put this in perspective, we almost spent as much time at the airport as we spent flying to England.

We arrived in London under overcast skies, almost a perfect English day. The first tourist attraction we visited was the new Tate Modern. The building, once a power plant, has been transformed into a magnificent showcase for modern art. At first I was unimpressed, not grasping the whole architectural achievement. After spending a few hours wandering around, my opinion changed dramatically and I walked away with an enormous amount of admiration and respect for what had transpired there. I would highly recommend a day at the Tate Museum to the budget traveler - admission is free - and also an egg-salad sandwich in the trendy café. The meal, which includes a free copy of the Guardian newspaper, is under two pounds. For London, a bargain.

September 14, 2000

I can’t believe we’re already at the end of our week in England. Most of our time here has been spent traveling around visiting Bill’s family and friends. Some of the highlights have to be: the pub lock-in in Bristol, seeing Eton students (born to be the future rulers of England) wearing their uniform of black full-length tuxedos, and a breakfast in Bill’s brother’s backyard that was interrupted by our first sighting of a Northern Goshawk – an extremely rare occurrence in that part of England.

Today is our day of relaxing and regrouping before we set out for Istanbul tomorrow. This week we also added five new birds to our lifelist - pop the champagne and bring on the dancing horses. We broke our 500th new bird (if anyone is counting – or cares). The English tanker blockade, which caused a tremendous amount of problems at the beginning of the week, may be easing a bit, and we think we might even get to the airport tomorrow.

Bill: England

September 9, 2000

England: the green, green grass of home. The place in which I am now forever a foreigner, despite being insufferably British everywhere else. An interesting position to be in - I have managed to achieve a state of permanent alienation, fortunately a state I’m quite at home in.

Every time I fly in under these gray-white skies and see the dazzling greenery that only several feet of rain per year can sustain, I am filled with an entire nation’s worth of homecoming pangs. Nostalgia – who doesn’t respond to it’s bitter fuzziness? It’s always strange coming here from New York because, by comparison, England manages to be weirdly futuristic at the same time as eternally old fashioned. In my mind, at least. Right now go-go London is supposed to be the grooviest city in the world, at its absolute swingingest since 1966, but it’s hard for me to take that seriously. It still looks like the same old place to me. Of course, there’s also the fact that I just don’t want England to be fabulous. It should be the kind of place where you can catch a vicar furtively purchasing a copy of Health & Efficiency whenever you enter a newsagent’s. I preferred it during the down and dingy times, the seasons of mild adversity. With a climate like this, I always feel it’s in our nature to be quietly glum. Myself, after living in New York so long, I have achieved an odd state of being loudly glum. It goes with that state of permanent alienation.

We were originally planning to get here at the end of our trip - lean, tanned and desperately urbane. In the end we decided to go around the world from the right instead of the left, and so are here in a state of excited nervousness, biting our nails in fresh khakis and shiny new hiking boots. Think of it as a gift to my old friends so they can take the piss out of us would-be explorers. All we lack are the pith helmets.

So here we are then, relieved to be finally on our way (until the last minute we were waiting for someone to come up to us and tell us we weren’t allowed to go) and looking forward to our first step into virgin territory – Istanbul beckons from next week. These few days in England are like a pleasant limbo, a place to relax and recover from the million details we had to sort out prior to leaving. Luckily, Doreen enjoys the company of my friends and family (unless she’s been lying to me all these years) and so we can relax and socialize. We’re away from New York, we’re in a different country, and our apartment has been left behind, but we haven’t really begun our trip yet. It’s quite a nice state to be in.

September 14, 2000

Well, be careful what you wish for. After waxing nostalgic for the grubbiness and industrial turmoil of the early Seventies, we now find ourselves in the middle of the most serious domestic crisis in decades. Or so they say. We are, once again, in some doubt as to whether we will make it to the airport tomorrow, and this time we are also wondering if there will even be fuel in the plane. I’m still not sure exactly what’s going on – I’m not sure if anyone else really is – but the entire nation appears to be in the grip of mass hysteria (quiet, polite mass hysteria, of course). The one fact that everyone can agree on is that petrol (gas) is very, very expensive in Europe, even more so in Britain. French lorry drivers (truckers) got pissed off with this and, as seems to be common Gallic practice when the weather gets warm, blockaded every available port until the government submitted to their demands - in this case, to lower the tax on petrol.

In Britain, where we had a lively form of political discourse ever since King Charles was removed from his head, this sort of thing has been rare ever since Margaret Thatcher apparently made any kind of industrial action illegal. The fact that Tony Blair, our new, Austin Powers style Prime Minister, is nominally a member of the Labour Party has had little impact on these draconian laws. Apparently the current unrest bypasses legislation by being organized by forces other than the unions, which has led to some mutterings about the whole thing being a ploy on the part of the oil companies.

I can’t say that we were paying a great deal of attention as the crisis gathered in momentum. We happily visited the Tate Modern with my mum, caroused with our friends in Bristol, and enjoyed a meal at our favorite London restaurant (Diwana’s, a vegetarian Indian place on Drummond Street, if you’re interested). Driving back from there with my brother and his wife, we noticed insanely long lines snaking from petrol stations and a growing number of hand-written signs announcing that there was no petrol left. Mere panic buying, we decided, and cheerfully set out the next day to go birdwatching in Kent. Luckily my brother had had the foresight to fill up on gas the night before, so we were able to pass by yet more insanely long lines of drivers patiently waiting for the last few drops of petrol available.

After an enjoyable morning spent sitting on the beach outside Dungeness nuclear power station, watching gulls, terns and the odd seal dining on the fish stirred up by the station’s coolant water run-off, we drove past Derek Jarman’s Martian garden and set off in search of lunch. (Speaking of lunch, I’d stay away from Dungeness crab, if I were you. It probably glows in the dark). We first noticed that something was amiss when we tried to buy lunch in a small village bakery. Apparently, when the English decide to panic-buy, their first impulse is to hoard baked goods - you never know when you’re going to need a good custard tart. Suddenly the shelves of every English supermarket were bare, as disappointed Y2Kers seized the opportunity to create food shortages by panic-buying in case of food shortages. At least there are no more lines outside the petrol stations. They’re all empty.

So here we are then. British Airways told us our vegetarian meals were ready and waiting, but to call back to make sure the plane will actually be taking off. We’ve booked a cab to take us to Heathrow tomorrow morning, but will it have enough juice to get us there? Stay tuned.

Doreen: Turkey

September 22, 2000

I’ve never felt more like a guest in a foreign country than I do in Turkey. The people are extremely helpful, friendly and kind, even to a couple of loonies who wear binoculars all the time and stare at Laughing Doves every 15 minutes. I’m not too sure why, but (knock on wood) everything is very easy in Istanbul. The only exception, and the one that’s driving us mad, is the difficulty in connecting to the internet. Hopefully we’ll be able to e-mail and update more often once we figure out how to actually get online.

We’ve spent our first four nights at the Otel Turkmen. It’s located just outside the tourist district, in the old city and I can’t say enough about how much I love that area. Even though we’re just five minutes away from the famous mosques, the narrow maze-like streets are filled with locals working and playing among the aging and less popular ruins. The hotel itself is cheap and cheerful, with a slightly unkempt feel to it. It may not be for everyone but it definitely worked for us. Actually, it worked so well we’re returning to the hotel on Saturday and are going to spend more time in Istanbul than we originally planned. After talking to a fellow birder, we are now changing our itinerary and are not going to visit the Black Sea coast - apparently it’s very difficult to bird that area without a team of trained ornithologists. Now we’re planning to stay around Istanbul and then head to Izmir.

Although we haven’t seen many of the tourist sites in Istanbul, one that we did see - and adored - was the Aya Sofya. Simply amazing! The history alone is mind boggling, but the fact that it existed almost two thousand years ago, first as a church and then as a mosque, is incredible. We’ve also been walking from one end of the old city to the other and, aside from a couple of steep hills, the walks are very pleasurable.

The biggest thrill for us has been the migration of birds over the Bosphorus. On Sunday we went to Camlica Park on the Asian side of Istanbul, and stood for hours (pretty much the whole day) with fellow birders and watched various species of bird rise above the city and swirl around the strait on their way south for the winter.

After Istanbul we traveled to Uludag, a mountain resort near Bursa, and then to Bandirma, a non-descript seaside town. Birding in both places turned out to be quite successful for us and some day we may put a book together: Birding by Mass Transit - not recommended for the die-hard twitcher.

Tomorrow we return to Istanbul via the Bandirma ferry. On Sunday we’ll go back to Camlica Park to view the hawk migration, and hope other birders are around to shout out what birds we’re looking at.

The street where we live

The street where we live

October 3, 2000

Here we are in a tiny Turkish Mediterranean town, hundreds of miles away from anywhere we originally planned to visit. Funny how that happens. Last week we returned to Istanbul and to the cozy, familiar Otel Turkmen. The hotel, either because they were happy to have us back or because their busy season was over, treated us to a complimentary bump-up to a better room. It was slightly larger than our previous room and had a balcony with a splendid view of the Sea of Marmara. The weather, which had been hot and humid, changed to cold and rainy which unfortunately put a slight damper on our birding plans. We did manage to salvage a few good days at Camlica Park during the week and witnessed an astounding number of Lesser Spotted Eagles flying over - fourteen thousand in one afternoon, but hey, who’s counting? Well, actually a few people really are. Then we ask them how many birds we’ve just seen.

Last weekend we hooked up with a fellow birder and went to central Anatolia. Kari is an expert birder who is very familiar with all the local birding hot-spots. He kindly drove us from one place to another, constantly identifying all the birds for us. On Saturday we racked up a total of eighteen new species and all of our thanks go to Kari since, without his knowledge and transportation, it would not have been possible. This was our best day yet and I’m sure a difficult one to top.

On Kari’s recommendation we decided not to return to Istanbul, but to continue down to the Goksu Delta on the Southern coast of Turkey. Our first overnight stop was in a town called Konya. I wasn’t a big fan of this place, and not just because it’s strictly Muslim and a cold beer is harder to find than a Catholic cathedral. The problem was that we arrived pretty late in a place we were clueless about. We spent too much money on a taxi to take us to the center of town, whereas we should have just hopped on a dolmus (mini van) from the bus station. Also, everything in the center was closing as we were trying to get our wits together. It didn’t help that we were starving and exhausted after birding for 12 hours and then being on a bus for another 3 1/2 hours after that. Anyway, the next day we moved on rather quickly, and happily arrived in Tasucu sometime in the afternoon. Tasucu is best known as the ferry connection to Cyprus. It gets the thumbs down from Lonely Planet, but once again I would beg to differ. This small town, not too developed yet, is right on the Mediterranean with lovely views of the sea and the mountains.

View from room 15, Otel Turkmen

View from room 15, Otel Turkmen

October 7, 2000

Istanbul - I can’t believe I’m still in Istanbul. (Just couldn’t wait until Saigon for that quote). Two issues that we haven’t mentioned yet, and which may be of some interest to someone, are the budget and vegetarianism. We started our trip with a vague idea that we shouldn’t spend more than $90 per day in most countries, excluding Australia and New Zealand. This figure takes into account that we are going to be spending some time in pretty pricey wildlife resorts which is why it may sound a bit high. Right now, our average in Turkey is around $75 per day, but it could be done comfortably on about $60 per day. The additional money was spent on taxi cab rides to get us to the more remote birding areas. We avoided spending money in cafes and bars or on specifically touristy things like Turkish night clubs and Turkish baths. We also haven’t spent any money on souvenirs, which works out fine because we have absolutely no space to spare in our backpacks.

Vegetarian meals on the whole were pretty easy to find. Even the meatiest of restaurants had side dishes of vegetables. The one important point that we always had to double-check was that sometimes chicken and fish weren’t considered meat by the waiters.

Istanbul street scene

Istanbul street scene

Bill: Turkey

Bandirma - September 21, 2000

Over the fish shop

Here we are on our seventh day in Turkey, watching Turkish MTV in a $15 a night hotel room in the fishing port of Bandirma – a town usually notable only as the place where you get off the Istanbul ferry on your way to Izmir. Birding will bring you to some strange places.

Our arrival in Istanbul was nowhere near as steeped in culture shock as I imagined it might be. Of course, the fact that someone from our hotel was there to meet us made it all very easy. But being driven downtown in a yellow taksi with a madman at the wheel made us feel quite comfortably at home - the highway is even called Kennedy Boulevard. In fact, Istanbul has a surprisingly familiar feel. It’s like a venerable Mediterranean city with an Islamic heritage – which, no shit Sherlock, it is. (OK, so it’s on the sea of Marmara technically, but that’s just next to the Mediterranean, honest).

Here in the old city the meandering cobblestone streets are lined with haphazardly constructed Legolandbuildings, tiny shops squeezed in beneath them. Peppered among these colorful, ugly buildings are many beautiful and ancient mosques. The call to prayer rings loudly out five times a day, but Kemel Ataturk did what he set out to do, and Turkey – Istanbul at least – is remarkably Westernized.

Doreen had found the Otel Turkmen online and the rate ($25 a night) seemed about right. That was all I knew about the place, so once we’d checked in and set out for a stroll around the neighborhood, I was shocked to discover we were staying three minutes walk from the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia. When we walked out of our hotel and promptly found ourselves in the Sultan Ahmet Mosque’s immaculate courtyard I experienced almost the same sense of unreality as the time we found ourselves unexpectedly circling Dealey Plaza. Budget accommodation so near the heart of the old city is commonplace in Istanbul, but it was news to me. Yes, it’s touristy around there, but how can you downplay proximity to the Hagia Sofia? It’s impressive enough by any standard, but given its age – it was a church for 1,000 years, a mosque for 700 more, and now it’s a museum – it is a miraculous feat of construction. It certainly knocks the socks off any other church (former of otherwise) I’ve seen, that’s for sure. And it’s the central motif in one of my favorite books (Pilgermann by Russell Hoban) so forgive me if I go on, but it is a magnificent building.

Sultan Ahmet Camii, AKA the Blue Mosque

Sultan Ahmet Camii, AKA the Blue Mosque

What a coincidence

Not that we planned it this way – initially, at least – but Istanbul in mid-September is one of the world’s migration hotspots. How convenient. A couple of days after arriving, we found ourselves on a mountain top overlooking Istanbul from the Asian side, watching flotillas of Black Stork fly in like Klingon death cruisers. Nice to think of these stately birds arriving like clockwork every year, working on their own, independent schedule, passing above Byzantium, Constantinople, the Ottoman empire, Istanbul, whatever. Crusaders on their way to pillage for Christ would look up and see exactly the same sight as you or I would today. We fight and squabble and build and burn and the Storks just keep on doing what Storks do. Oddly reassuring, to me at least.

A couple of days later we set off for Uludag, a ski resort set atop the highest mountain in western Anatolia, right in the middle of a national park. An unlikely choice for low-budget travelers in September, but it’s another birding hotspot and the chance of nabbing a Fire-fronted Serin made it too good of an opportunity to pass up. Getting there was interesting enough (by land and sea), but as the cab pulled into what looked like a Hollywood set in the middle of construction and parked outside a hotel that was clearly closed for the season (a hotel listed in our guide book as the only one that would be open) we experienced a sense of mild trepidation. Fortunately, there was one hotel in town that was open – the Hotel Grand Yazici, the first (and probably last) four star hotel we have ever stayed in. Well, what else could we do? We’d invested thirty bucks in a cab ride to the summit (no buses running this time of year) so it made sense to stick around - ah, the twisted logic of the unrepentant birder. Actually, the rate of $67.50 a night wasn’t too bad when you consider it included three large meals a day. Not to mention satellite TV that included BBC World (hurrah!) and the priceless ability to step out of the door and into a birding wonderland. (See the birding pages for the full, blow-by-blow of our adventures with the tiny alpine dinosaurs).

Not only that, but we were even able to get online from our hotel room. No mean feat given the fact that the ‘Turkish’ phone adapter I purchased from Roadwarrior.com might perhaps work in hotels built within the last year, but is unusable everywhere else. How up to date of them. At the Hotel de Posh I was finally able to make it work by brilliantly (accidentally) removing the front panel of the phone jack, thereby enabling me to jam the adapter in. Pretty smooth – never underestimate the power of positive stupidity.

Today we went from one extreme to the other. From the Alpine chill of Uludag to the steamy, somewhat fishy ambiance of Bandirma - a pleasantly chilled-out backwater by comparison with Istanbul, and a whirling metropolis after the deserted Hotel Yazici, where you kept expecting to run into a pair of twins who wanted to play with you for ever, and ever, and ever

Istanbul - October 6, 2000

Glass cases – a brief tangent

Nearing the end of our time in Turkey, we’re back for our third stay at the Otel Turkmen. Last night from our balcony we watched the sun sink into western Istanbul as the sunset call to prayer rang out. The five or six mosques in the immediate neighborhood aggressively compete for air space – there’s no polite taking of turns like over by the Blue Mosque – but the more distant calls blend into one thick background tone, an atonal treat reminiscent of the monolith piece in 2001. As we sat in the twilight sipping our beers, we heard a strange cry, and saw a little owl perched on a rooftop just to our left, regarding us with yellow eyes. (Close inspection of our fieldguides revealed that its official title is the Little Owl – they must have named that one at the end of a long day). After staring at us and the surrounding area for a few minutes, the owl dove off the roof and vanished into the emerging darkness. Seeing an owl is always a special event for us, mysterious creatures of the night that they are. Let’s hope they symbolize something propitious.

After Bandirma, where I wrote the first installment of this journal, we took a ferry back to Istanbul and stayed for a few days while the weather took an unseasonably cold turn. We entertained ourselves by raptor watching from Buyuk Camlica once again, and on the rainiest day we visited the archeological museum. Now I don’t know if there’s a problem developing between me and museums, but I have to confess that I found it a bit dull there. It was more or less the same random collection of antiquities that you could find in the museums of London and New York. I suppose the fact that we blithely pinched the best stuff from countries like Turkey in the first place creates an unfair playing field – if everything had been left where it was found, they’d have the best museums in the world right here.

(I also have to add that the Tate Modern put me off the whole experience of galleries and museums in general. The problem is, with the invention of the camera and the sudden obsolescence of what western art had been all about for five hundred years, there was a magnificent flourishing of creativity until the early part of this century - which hit a brick wall with abstract art. After that there was nowhere left to go really, and for the last three quarters of the twentieth century, art has had its head firmly inserted in its posterior. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. The various movements in western art over the last seventy five years are all of great significance – to other artists and to art historians. What bothers me is the way that these objects are displayed to the rest of us, who must file past them in hushed and uncomprehending reverence. The guy who canned his own shit and sold it for its weight in gold was making a good point, having a good laugh, and earning a good few quid into the bargain. But why do we have to go to see it? I realize I sound like a philistine here, but most people can enjoy a Monet, yet very few find esthetic pleasure in a Hirst. The pieces at the Tate would have made a lot more sense if they came with a tag saying how much they had cost. Then we could think about who decides what these things are worth, and why. My favorite moment at the Tate Modern was in the room where an American artist has exhibited his work benches, covered with brushes, old coffee cups, and various other detritus. Not a bad idea. Amongst the various crap on the benches is a very new, and very British looking, Lucozade bottle – a beverage unavailable in the United States. Clearly, some undiscovered genius has made a very valid contribution to the history of modern art. I hope the Lucozade bottle continues to be enshrined with all the other important, valuable garbage for all time).

Anyway, sorry about that geographical lapse. Back to the Istanbul Archeological Museum, then.... The oldest human habitation known to be in existence, Catal Hoyuk, is right here in Turkey, and I was hoping for some insight into their day-to-day life. Why the hell they invented the city, for example. But all of that stuff is apparently in Ankara, so never mind. We had the most fun at the museum petting the relatively spoiled museum cats, who would attempt to jump on your lap while you were still standing up.

Head of Medusa at the Basilica Cistern AKA Yerebatan Saray

Head of Medusa at the Basilica Cistern AKA Yerebatan Saray

You know where you are with a birdwatcher

There’s an old joke: my analyst told me I was paranoid, so I should move to New York – everyone really would be out to get me, so then I’d be cured. Ha ha. The reason I bring up this stale confection is that Doreen and I are generally very wary of other people. Not a bad thing when you’re a tourist (with "money" written all over you, no matter how poor you think you are), and need to be on your guard at all times. But sometimes it’s a shame when a fundamental lack of trust gets in the way of meeting people and experiencing new things – part of what travel is supposed to be all about.

Which brings me to the International Fraternity of Birdwatchers. (And you thought the Illuminati secretly ran the world. Shows how much you know). Whatever godforsaken swamp you might find yourself in, wherever on earth you’re peering myopically through binoculars at an unidentifiable bird, you can be sure of one thing - sooner or later you’ll see another birdwatcher, no matter how remote the spot. Which is a good thing, because then they can tell you what the unidentifiable bird is.

Another good thing about this: to my knowledge, no birder has ever done physical harm or ripped-off another birder. Irritated, bored, exasperated - yes. But anything serious? Never. You know you’re OK when you see another anorak-clad nimrod squinting through a scope in force nine gale. Which explains why, soon after meeting Kari – a Finnish birder living in Istanbul, and an all-round good guy – we unhesitatingly took him up on his offer to drive us to some inaccessible birding locations the next weekend. Too paranoid to open the front door in New York, but happily hop into a car with a complete stranger in a foreign country? Sure! The International Fraternity of Birdwatchers says it’s OK – and it is. This is not to say that you encounter such random acts of generosity from birdwatchers all the time. Kari is an exceptionally nice guy, as well as a champion birder.

Which is how we ended up more or less in the middle of nowhere, also known as central Anatolia. We had a great time birding, of course, but it was also fascinating to see these little villages where people where living more or less the same way as they have done for centuries. What they made of us I have no idea, but they were polite enough to leave us alone while we stared at dots on the horizon.

The coolest guy in the world

Another good thing about Turkey: there’s a certain amount of latitude in most things that’s completely antithetical to the northern European approach to life. When we stopped at the motorway service station and asked if the bus to Konya stopped there, their response was not to answer, quite truthfully, that it did not, and to leave it at that. Instead, we were introduced to the coolest guy in the world.

This bald-headed, unsmiling guy was nattily attired in a blazer, but had a natural sense of style that would have made him look sharp in a T shirt and Bermuda shorts. The way he chain-smoked at a pace that would have made Humphrey Bogart blanch accentuated his aura of cool – we all know, deep down, that smoking makes you cool – but it was his face that made the deepest impression. Any country with a history as rich as Turkey’s is bound to have an interesting ethnic mix. Who knew Ankara was originally founded by wandering Celts? And although most people here look, well, Turkish, you often see faces that could come from northern France, the Black Sea republics, or Arabia. This man, however, had the face of one of the fierce horsemen of the steppes. Although the Turks were one of many Turkic people who came west and beat the crap out of everyone they met – think Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun – you don’t see this type of face too often, at least in the western half of the country. The blood of conquerors flowed through his veins, although he didn’t seem to mind running a service station in the middle of nowhere.

The coolest guy in the world calmly called the main office and arranged for the Konya bus to make an unscheduled stop to pick us up. Even better, once we got on the bus, we realized that it was going to stop in the nearby town of Kulu anyway – but everyone at the service station was so nice they wouldn’t have dreamed of telling us to just catch the bus there. Extraordinary.

The reason we found ourselves here in the first place is, obviously, birding. Instead of driving back to Istanbul with Kari, we decided to hop a bus and head south to the Mediterranean, so that we could check out the famous Goksu Delta. (Famous to birdwatchers, anyway). That’s how we found ourselves trying to head for Konya, a place we randomly decided to spend the night on our way south. It looked like a handy half-way point. Interestingly, it’s the nearest city to Catal Hoyuk, the oldest known town in the world. Unfortunately, as you know, all the artifacts that were found there have been carted away, so we didn’t bother to go. Perhaps we should have, but I’ve found that it’s hard to get the desired frission of ancient times from staring at a grass covered hillock with a sign on it. Without the use of certain revered religious substances, anyway.

Shotguns and sparrowhawks

The Lonely Planet mentioned one place – the Lades Hotel – as being birder-friendly, so that’s where we went, and got a great room with a view of the Mediterranean for under $30 a night. The manager hooked us up with taksi transport to the Goksu Delta, so we were well in. When we got there, there was even a hide for us to cower from the heat of the sun while spying on unsuspecting Purple Gallinules.

One thing you notice in Turkey – there are unfinished buildings everywhere. Really, everywhere. Outside Ankara there are miles and miles of half-built tower blocks, but it’s a phenomenon that strikes you wherever you go. Sometimes people run out of money half way through construction, but there is also apparently a weird law which says that you can’t apply for permission to build until you’ve already started to build – at which point permission can be denied. Who knows. Anyway, on our second day down south, we were birding a vast, open area of the delta, with fallow fields on one side and a large lake on the other. Not much going on for several miles, but right in the middle were three unfinished buildings, each in turn less finished than the last. As we got closer, we noticed some English writing in the wall. "Go Away" it said, and, as an afterthought "I will fuck your god". Why anyone other than a local or a birdwatcher would be there in the first place I don’t know, but at this point we thought it might be a good idea to move on and investigate the Flamingos a bit further away.

As we birded away the morning, an occasional motorbike would drive by. We noticed that some of them also carried shotguns, and later we saw hunters striding through the fields and heard the crack of their guns. I began to regret the earth-tones of my outfit, guaranteed not to alarm our feathered friends. Some of the motorbikes heading back to the village would carry two men but no shotgun, and upon one of these I seemed to see a chicken. Well, why not? A motorbike is as reasonable method of conveying a chicken as any other.

I was, however, disabused of this notion when one of the bikes pulled up and a man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Yellowhat (in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre) got off to say Merhaba. Perched on his wrist was a tethered Sparrowhawk, and his friend held a sack of pitifully peeping Quail. These two had been hunting by the age-old method of falconry (or, to be precise, accipitery - but let’s not be picky). He and I spoke about the same amount of German, but managed to have a nice chat regardless. We admired his hawk, but had a harder time admiring his dinner. Doreen later said we should have tried to buy the Quail back so we could set them free (and add a bird to our lifelist in the process), but at the time we were a little nonplused, and merely waved goodbye. I know I could have whipped out my phrase book and made an impassioned speech on behalf of vegetarianism, but I was, after all, compelled to obey the Prime Directive.

Either on the buses or

As a part of contemporary mythology, America’s Greyhound buses are a thing of the past. Once upon a time they were stuffed with pale English poets, desperately scribbling their definitive Greyhound poems. Now, apart from an occasional, overly optimistic advertising campaign, they barely touch on the popular consciousness. When our friend Liz took one to South Carolina, it was such a novelty that it became the central topic of conversation one night, as well as a rich source of humor.

In Turkey, things are different. The highways are good and the buses are clean, comfortable, and cheap. They appear to lack drooling psychopaths and come equipped with stewards who ply you with complementary mineral water, coffee, cake and cologne. So Doreen decided that the best plan of action for us would be to travel from Tasucu to Istanbul directly, on an all-night bus ride that was supposed to take about fourteen hours. Never having succumbed to the allure of the Greyhound, I was initially skeptical, thinking that it might be a better idea to stop-off somewhere in the middle; but Doreen argued her case persuasively, and the all nighter was decided upon. The price could hardly be argued with - $18 each for a distance of, er, a long way. Several hundred kilometers anyway, whatever they might be.

Unfortunately, in addition to their many advantages, Turkish buses also provide music. Not so bad when the music being played is traditional in nature (whatever "traditional" really means – "not western sounding" might be the best definition I have). When the selections being played fall under the genre of Turkish Rock, however, the results can be very distressing.

French Rock might be just plain bad, but Turkish Rock manages to be a whole lot worse. The copycat acts here aren’t particularly awful, simply pale imitations of whatever western band they happen to be imitating. It’s when a fusion of traditional Turkish and western music is attempted that things get really ugly, combining the worst elements of both styles - histrionic vocals fighting against appallingly flatulent guitar solos that would make Nigel Tufnel blush. It’s a shame, because most of the music you hear in Turkey is lovely. (It’s also almost exclusively Turkish – the only remotely western tunes we’ve heard have been cover versions. You’ll be half listening to an odd sounding version of Cecilia, when it will suddenly break into a Turkish rap section). And if you think I’m complaining about all this too much, you’re probably right. But then, you didn’t just listen to eight hours of Turkish Rock, interrupted only by a showing of Lethal Weapon 4 - in Turkish. Thank god it was dubbed and I didn’t have to listen to the dialogue.

The tiled kiosk, archeological museum, Istanbul (only open one day a week, but the exterior was nice)

The tiled kiosk, archeological museum, Istanbul (only open one day a week, but the exterior was nice)

Doreen: Nepal

October 21,2000

When we bought our airplane tickets, now over several months ago, I knew the flight from Istanbul to Kathmandu was going to be tricky. For some unclear and maybe misguided reason we had to go via Bahrain, and we could either spend the night in Bahrain at $80.00 per person or continue on to Delhi. For purely economic reasons we decided to continue on. The total amount of time we spent in the air was less then 8 hours but the two connecting flights, along with a very hellish delay in Delhi, turned the journey into a thirty hour ordeal. On the bright side, we did save $160.

We arrived very late and very exhausted which may have made the drive from the airport to the hotel even more alarming. Once the car passed the tourist district of Thamel and turned onto a very narrow, dark alleyway I couldn’t believe I’d booked a place away from the popular and populated section of town. What was I thinking? Thankfully, the hotel, located in the Chhetrapati district, was fine. Our room included a TV and an almost private roof garden with spectacular views of the Himalayan Mountains and the Swayambhunath Stupa (more commonly known as the Monkey Temple). After the first morning walk around Kathmandu area we adjusted fine to the traffic, noise, sights and sounds of an incredible, almost indescribable, city.

It wasn’t until a few days later that we understood why Nepal is truly a birder’s paradise. The country, five times smaller than the state of Texas, has almost the same amount of species as the United States and Canada combined. Quite impressive to say the least. After a week of semi-birding the Kathmandu valley, we headed to Royal Chitwan National Park and then on to Koshi Tappu for a full ten days of non-stop birdwatching. Birding both places was excellent and we also had some unique moments interacting with the locals.

One morning in Chitwan we set out with our guide to bird the 20,000 lakes area. Right before we entered the community forest our guide took us into a tiny grass and mud hut where a woman served us tea as we sat on wooden benches watching the sun rise (up until this point we’d been extremely careful about what we ate or drank). Half my brain was pleasantly enjoying an awesome relaxing Kodak moment, while the other half was screaming "we’re going to be violently ill for the rest of the day". I’m happy to report we both remained healthy for that day and for our entire trip through the terai.

On another occasion, just after arriving in Koshi Tappu, we were birding with our guide when we came upon a few children who were tending to their water buffaloes. After several minutes Bill and I noticed that the older boy, maybe around thirteen or fourteen, seemed to be following us. I once caught his eye and he seemed to be staring directly at me, and of course I thought this was maybe a little Larium paranoia (our anti-malaria drug) kicking in. We continued to walk with our guide, who wasn’t paying any attention to the boy, so I felt safe following suit. Not long after, I noticed him staring at me as he started to chant "Dor-een Dor-een Dor-een". Again, at first, I’m thinking I’ve got to get off this Larium, but then Bill asks me who in the village knows our names, so I knew this wasn’t just in my head. My next, almost panicky, question to Bill is "where are the passports?" At this point I think our guide realizes something is bothering us, and he begins to talk with the boy. Eventually the kid leaves and we continue to birdwatch, never mentioning or questioning the bizarre chanting incident.

Sunset over Royal Chitwan from the Suaraha side of the Rapti river

Sunset over Royal Chitwan from the Suaraha side of the Rapti river

November 14, 2000

We’ve had a great time in Nepal and we’re sorry to be leaving, but of all the beautiful, strange and exotic images in my mind, none is more burned into my brain then the dead snake hanging from a tree in the woods of Pokhara. Even the large, living snake we saw in the paddy-fields hasn’t haunted me like the hanging one, which must have been over seven feet long. Fortunately, all the amazing birds we’ve seen more than make up for the occasional reptile.

Originally we weren’t even going to go to Pokhara, because I had read so many scary reports about the bus trip between there and Kathmandu. I had visions of us traveling on the roof of a dilapidated bus, taking hairpin turns on bad roads, clinging desperately to our backpacks. This fear subsided when we accidentally stumbled upon the offices of the Greenline bus company in Kathmandu. They run relatively cheap, comfortable, reserved-seating bus trips between Chitwan, Pokhara, and Kathmandu. The buses always left on schedule with no unscheduled delays or mechanical breakdowns. They even give out complementary copies of the English-language Kathmandu Post, and throw in a free breakfast at a very nice resort at the half-way point.

Both Pokhara and Chitwan are great places to visit, but I’m very happy that we didn’t do a package tour in Chitwan, instead staying in Suaraha and arranging our jungle tours on our own, on a daily basis. (Use United Jungle Guide Service if you find yourself in Suaraha – they’re great). Also, although we think Pokhara is a little overrated, we stayed in the quieter Damside neighborhood and enjoyed the slower, less commercial pace there, compared to Lakeside which is more like Kathmandu minus the charm.

Lastly, one of the nicest surprises for us was the quality of the restaurants. The selection of vegetarian food in Kathmandu pretty much rivals New York City, it’s almost impossible to find a bad place to eat, and the prices are ridiculously cheap. In Thamel, the New Tripti, Nirmala, and the interestingly named Oh-La-La were some of the restaurants we visited early and often, and the Paradise on Freak Street was another favorite.

One of the many monkeys of Swayambhunath

One of the many monkeys of Swayambhunath

Bill: Nepal

Kathmandu, October 29, 2000

Remember, Remember

Another thing about birdwatching – it tends to be the same wherever you are. (Obviously the birds are different, otherwise you wouldn’t be there in the first place. You know what I mean). There you are, trying to find one green leafbird in a tree with ten million leaves of exactly the same shade, while the person next to you is irritatingly saying "it’s right in front of you – just next to the bendy branch with the leaves on it". You might be facing an arctic gale or in the last throes of terminal dehydration, but the experience is always pretty much the same. One reason why birdwatching has so many adherents is the way in which it focuses your mind while making you forget your surroundings. And it’s legal.

Which is why it always comes as something as a shock when, just after asking "what do you mean the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo’s on the bendy branch with the leaves on it?", you find yourself confronted with a herd of cows covered in blue and red polka dots. (And we’re not talking about the side-effects of Lariam here, either). There you are, birding away, when you suddenly say to yourself "Holy crap – I’m in Nepal!" Sadly, this comment is usually followed with "what do you mean the Greater Racket-tailed Drongo’s on the bendy branch with the leaves on it?" There’s no cure.

The reason we ran into a herd of brightly painted cows was because we were birding in the middle of Diwali (or Tihar or Deepawali), the second most important Nepali festival of the year. On this particular day, cows and money were being worshipped by villagers in an effort to increase their numbers of both. That night, as we were driving back to the insanely expensive tented camp we were staying in, the villages we passed through were illuminated by thousands of tiny candles while bonfires blazed and little kids set off deafening fireworks. (What were we doing in an insanely expensive tented camp in the exact middle of nowhere? Do you have to ask?) It was a festive, if smoky, picture, and lent a cheerful aspect to the mud and straw huts that comprise the tribal villages. Even the guys that worked at our camp were extra-jovial that night, and the little candles they put everywhere made it easier for us to find our way to the mosquito-infested toilets. So it was a good festival for us as well.

We went to sleep listening to the locals drinking and singing, and woke up to more of the same – and then they went to work in the fields. How do they do this? Perhaps there really is something to be said for the pre-industrial lifestyle. OK, so there’s no dental care, but maybe the sense of community makes up for it; although I doubt if even the most devoted fan of Rousseau would trade places with them.

At the time it struck me as a kind of Nepali Guy Fawkes night, but when we returned to Kathmandu a couple of days later I realized it more closely resembled a combination of November 5th, July 4th, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Halloween, and a luau. (But then, we all have festivals at harvest time don’t we? I’ve seen Halloween dummies on porches in New England that have to have something in common with the unlucky Mr. Fawkes, a name which means nothing in the USA. Our Guy is probably just a modern variant of the wicker man, who is himself a substitute for another guy – a very unlucky human sacrifice. Possibly).

Anyway, back in Kathmandu bands of musicians went from door to door receiving gifts of money, food and sweets, kids ran into every commercial establishment and chanted maddeningly until given a few rupees to sod off, exploding M-80s kept you on your toes, people everywhere were festooned with garlands of flowers, and dogs were blessed with vermilion tikas on their foreheads. It was quite wonderful, and luckily we were so knackered we were able to sleep right through it.

Kathmandu street scene.

Kathmandu street scene.

Dennis Cooper strikes back

One rule of travel which we have learned quite rapidly is: Never intentionally book a flight from hell. The obvious reason being that any flight has the potential to turn nasty on you, and if it’s already a bitch it will now be a bitch squared. In short, we were asking for trouble when we booked a flight from Istanbul to Kathmandu that included a four hour stopover in Bahrain and a seven hour all-night thumb-twiddler in Delhi. There is apparently no easy route from Istanbul to Kathmandu, but this one wasn’t made any easier by the cancellation of the previous flight from Delhi, resulting in hordes of irate mountain-climbers trying to pinch our seats. Nor was it made any easier by an additional eight hour delay, but on the plus side it did give us a chance to become well acquainted with the delights of Delhi International. Not much of a plus, I admit.

Which is all just standard RTW travel stuff, really. If you don’t expect this kind of thing now and then, you should stay home, and moaning about it on your website is as dull as it is self-indulgent (although at the time it might make a day at the office seem quite appealing). The only real drag about the preceding fiasco was that by the time we got to Kathmandu we’d missed a day and were more than a little fried. It did guarantee a good night’s sleep, however, and the next morning we awoke in a strange and wonderful land, a sensation you don’t normally get after college.

Our hotel – the charming Ganesh Himal - is located in Chhetrapati, dead center between the mesmerizing tourist ghetto of Thamel and the temple-rich splendors of Durbar Square. As we walked out of our street – more like an alley, really – and onto the main drag, we turned right instead of left and found ourselves in Durbar Square, where dozens of temples coexist in equitable harmony. One of them even houses a living goddess, and she seems to get along fine with all the other gods who reside there in a more symbolic fashion.

We had arrived right in the middle of the preceding festival – Dasain, the most important of all – and the hordes of people paying homage to the various deities may have been greater in number because of this. (All we knew was that we had just managed to avoid the day when hundreds of goats are sacrificed to Durga. No disrespect to the wonders of cultural diversity, but there are some things we’d rather not see, although there were still a disconcerting amount of goat’s heads nailed to butcher walls when we arrived. While I’m on the subject of mortality, I’d also like to add that the dead rats you see now and again on the streets of Kathmandu are no match for the hare-sized one I accidentally trod on while walking down Delancy Street a couple of years ago, prompting me to leap up into the air and yelp in a most embarrassing way. Quite like home, really).

So there we were, jet-lagged and slightly stunned as people rang bells, spun prayer-wheels and walked clockwise round temples, fruit vendors spread their wares on the ground and little kids played gambling games under the roofs of the shadier temples. And these were the quieter aspects of the place. Welcome to the middle ages, a voice in my head said, while another one said Jeez! It’s just like Jabberwocky! If it weren’t for the modern dress of the men, it could have been six hundred years ago. England must have been just like this, except our clothes might not have been so colorful, and I sincerely doubt if our religion was as much fun.

It would have been just like the middle ages if not for the other tourists of course, the more hale of which would hike up the larger temples in a somewhat disrespectful fashion (although Nepalis seem remarkably tolerant and didn’t appear to mind). Nepal is an amalgam of dozens of different cultures, races, ethnic and language groups, and they are all represented here on the streets of Kathmandu - in addition to a sizable population of Tibetan refugees. Consequently, the people watching here is amazing. A constant parade of beautiful faces passes by, a reminder that Nepal is at the nexus of Asia, the Indian subcontinent, and the steppes of central Asia. Or something like that, I don’t know. But it’s a wonderful mélange. And then there’s the tourists. Large, pink, and often stinky,  towering over the delicate locals, carrying a Nepali year’s salary around their necks in hardware while trying not to meet each other’s eye and break the illusion. It’s an odd experience being a time traveler.

One of the hundreds of Kathmandu's temples.

One of the hundreds of Kathmandu's temples.

Kathmandu, November 1, 2000

Rhinos and Tigers and Ticks - Oh Christ!

Despite having hardly any uncultivated land left, Nepal has plenty of wildlife to offer, apart from its rich variety of birds. Chitwan is most famous for its tigers and rhinos - two animals that, despite their admittedly fascinating qualities, we were less than keen to encounter while birding. Tigers really present no problem to tourists, being mainly nocturnal and extremely elusive, especially if you really want to see one. You're much more likely to meet one if you live in a nearby village and the local tiger becomes old or infirm and is displaced by a younger individual. And even then you'd probably only see it briefly before becoming supper, and that's not a very attractive prospect whichever way you look at it.  We were told that, even when a man-eater is known to be in action, the government still forbids killing it and will instead try to capture it and relocate it to a zoo. Full marks on the ecological front, but pretty harsh on the local villagers. You wonder if their case might be given a better hearing if tigers didn't bring in so many tourist dollars. We were happy, while birding in the park, to be shown fresh tiger tracks and to know that these beautiful animals are doing quite well in the face of almost total habitat-loss. Coming face-to-face with one was neither likely nor high on our agenda. Perhaps we'll have a closer encounter in India.

Indian one-horned rhinos, however, are a different story. These animals are quite common in Chitwan and can be extremely aggressive - one reason why you're not allowed in the park without a pair of guides. We were told about a fanatical English birder who insisted on going far too deep into rhino territory and was subsequently flipped high into the air after being charged from behind. (Probably while on the point of identifying a particularly rare bird, but there you go). He survived, as did the two German ladies who, while smoking pot at 20,000 Lakes, failed to control their dog and also got badly injured after he started yapping at a passing rhino. (Now, taking on a charging rhino to protect your pet is an admirable and heroic action, but I have to ask - what kind of an idiot takes their pampered pet into an area known for its dangerous beasts and then lets it roam at will? This puts quite a hole in the argument that pot doesn't cause brain damage). When we did see a rhinoceros, we were quite content to be on one side of the river and to have him on the other. That was fine with us. At Koshi Tappu we were just as happy to avoid bumping into a wild water buffalo, reputedly the most aggressive animal in the world (apart from the blonde republican pundits you see on Politically Incorrect). It would have been nice to have seen more of the incredibly rare Gangetic dolphins that we caught a glimpse of at the Koshi barrage,  but we were grown-up enough not to expect them to come over and shake hands with us like Flipper would have done. Just.

Of the two types of monkey here, the common langur is the easiest to deal with, given his modus operandi of staying up in the trees and looking cute. Perhaps the only negative aspect of his personality is the way in which, now and again, he will appear to be a really impressive bird for a second or two, before resuming his natural shape. His cousin, the rhesus macaque, is of a different order entirely. He is much tougher, and will relieve you of your foodstuffs faster than you can say Jack Robinson - and who's going to argue with him about that? At Swayambhunath - commonly referred to as the more easy to pronounce monkey temple - I was chased away by a female who apparently thought I was sitting down a little too close to her youngsters. In her defense, I have to say that the scratch on the arm she gave me was expertly judged - strong enough to encourage me to leave quickly, gentle enough not to draw blood. Later on, when I was trying unsuccessfully to feed a Twix bar to a pathetic pariah dog (being invincibly and inevitably English), another monkey rushed over and pragmatically dealt with the rejected candy. A good thing I wasn't hungry myself at the time.

Today, at Nagarjung park on the outskirts of Kathmandu, we encountered a less mercenary troupe of Macaques. We were walking back after doing some birdwatching when we ran into several mothers and infants by the side of the road. The children cavorted delightfully while the adults scratched their arses and looked bored. What is the correct etiquette for an occasion of this nature? Do we simply walk by, tipping our hats, or do we cower where we are, in deference to their impressive canines? Ms. Post is unfortunately silent on this one. We opted for cowering for a while and then slowly moving forward. Very slowly. They responded by watching us with seeming indifference, and then gradually moving away from the road. Very gradually - it probably took us twenty minutes to walk as many yards. In the end there was just one monkey left, and, feeling a bit more confident with the odds, we elected to walk past her. As we approached her, she turned and instead walked past us. Very civilized, really.

So much for the cute animals. Nepal also has an impressive array of creatures who are bent on one thing only: drinking your blood. Their mosquitoes are fairly robust, (though no match for Canada's black fly, an insect of pure evil). A liberal dousing of DEET will usually keep them off. Leeches are also somewhat deterred by this appalling stuff, though less successfully - in my case, at least. Doreen has so far managed to keep them at bay. Monsoon is the best time for finding leeches, if you're that way inclined, but a few linger throughout the last months of the year, apparently hoping to find some good British blood to snack on. When I found evidence of leeching on my calves, I impressed everyone - myself, mainly - with a display of the kind of sang froid that made the Empire great. (Great as long as you weren't one of its foreign subjects, of course). There were no African Queen scenes of me screaming "get 'em off me, get 'em off me!" Probably because they were already off me anyway, haven drunk their fill. No, much worse than finding leech marks on your leg is the unmistakable sensation of a tick sinking its teeth into your groils in the middle of the night. That'll make you sit up and pay attention, make no mistake.

Up till now we have managed to remain quite tick-free in life. Fear of Lyme disease has kept us out of the undergrowth for many years, preferring to bird from pathways whenever possible. Lyme disease being one thing you don't have to worry about in Nepal, at Koshi Tappu we blindly followed our guide as he crashed into the jungle. It was good when we eventually found five species of Drongo in the heart of jungle darkness, less good when I found at least one species of tick where the sun don't shine. Quite repulsive really, but on the other hand they have to make a living too. It just puts a bit of a dent in the theory about the old guy with the white beard thinking all this stuff up.

Another of the monkeys of Swayambhunath

Another of the monkeys of Swayambhunath

The Big City

What a wonderful, incredible, indescribable place Kathmandu is. It can drive you crazy if your defenses are low, but it's impossible not to love it. As you try and dodge the traffic long enough to cross the road, you can't help but be entranced by the women riding side-saddle on the backs of speeding motorbikes, beautiful saris immaculately clean as they fly over the piles of garbage in the street. And how can you not love a place with so many temples that even a bump in the road has become holy, or where the guy whispering "marijuana - hashish - opium" in your ear stops to pay his respects at a shrine and to sprinkle some sacred petals on his head? At the long-distance phone and internet store downstairs where we've been uploading this site, we arrived the other morning just as the owner was opening up shop. While we were booting up he calmly splashed water outside and onto a picture of some god or other, before lighting some equally important incense. What can it mean to be a Hindu? Buddhism is somewhat accessible to the western mind, but the Hindu panoply defies comprehension, to me at least. What is evident is that it pervades every aspect of people's lives here, that it is a very real, living religion that obviously provides something very important. How lucky these people are to have such faith in their day-to day lives. In another marvelous juxtaposition, Nepal is one of the only countries in the world to have ever had a democratically elected Marxist government. The hammer and sickle is still proudly graffitied all over the place, creating a splendidly retro 20th Century feel. There are so many fascinating things happening all over the place that it makes it easy to ignore the rubbish heaps that seem to occur wherever they want to, growing to monumental proportions over the holiday period when the only people who seem to be taking some time off are the refuse collectors. Those must be government jobs.

November 14, 2000

Fear and Loathing in Kathmandu

The penthouse suite at the Hotel Ganesh Himal is so cozy that we have a hard time dragging ourselves away at the best of times. The fact that it has cable TV (including BBC World and CNN) made sure we planned on returning from Pokhara in time to catch the results of the American presidential elections on TV. At least, that was the plan. As everyone in the world knows - the manager here agrees with us that the vice president is the "more gentle" of the two principal candidates - the wheels of democracy continue to grind.

The time difference worked for us in that, as we awoke at around six a.m. (normal birder's hours) on November the 8th, the polls were still open in the US and we had all day to watch the results come in. While people back home must have been compelled by increasing exhaustion to eventually stop watching, we were in the unenviable position of having all day to watch the whole mess evolve. As the saga has continued we've tried repeatedly to tear ourselves away, but with little success. As pure drama, it's compulsive viewing, a bit like Survivor on a grander stage.

In a typical twist of the democratic process, we were hoping that the only candidate we liked would do badly, ensuring that the candidate we disliked least would beat the candidate we really hated. In short, we hoped for Tweedledum over Tweedledummer. So we were quite cheered when, shortly after we woke up, the media called a result apparently based on how people thought they had voted. Like them, we hadn't counted on the newfound fondness of elderly Jews for extreme right-wingers. As the day wore on, of course, we became progressively glummer, and were ready to resume our trip and get on with the important business of birding when the concession was conceded and everything started getting really interesting.

Since then we have been trapped in a self-imposed limbo, staring ashen faced and slack jawed at the TV in the corner as the twists and turns continue to unfold. It's an experience which is eerily reminiscent of watching England in an endless penalty shootout with Germany - you know who's going to win, but there's always that glimmer of hope that keeps you watching. We feel lucky to have missed the campaign, and are therefore a lot less sick of this than everyone else - probably why we differ with those who just want this thing resolved either way, just as long as they get some closure. A friend e-mailed us from England that Harry Shearer said the whole election had been so boring that the American people deserved all this entertainment, and we must agree. As fascinating as it has been, though, we're glad to be setting off for India tomorrow, where we will be able to stop obsessing about this charade and get on with birdwatching. I hope we can kick the habit - I have nightmare visions of us in the jungle, cursing as the reception fades in and out of our short-wave radio.

Last thoughts of Nepal

This is such an amazing country that I could go on forever about it. So what if there are no ATMs? At least there are some machines which might let you make an advance on your credit card, and they at least work some of the time. Passing one yesterday I noticed a Buddhist monk gesturing at me. Now, in Kathmandu (or New York for that matter) you get used to ignoring people trying to attract your attention, but when a monk starts waving I tend to take notice. It turns out he had been entrusted with the company credit card, but had no idea how to use the cash machine. I was enlisted to show him how to insert the card, key in the code, select the amount , and so on. (I of course averted my eyes as punched in his secret pin number. I don't want to piss off anyone in high places). A day later it occurs to me that perhaps he shouldn't have had the card in the first place - but he did know the code number, so I feel fairly confident that he was on the level. As he explained to me, it was his first time using a cash machine, and I was happy to help, wondering if I might gain extra merit on top of that which I attained by walking to the top of Swayambhunath. In fact, heartened by this experience, I went back and managed to successfully get some rupees out of the machine, a first. So maybe that was my reward.

Tintin appears to be one of many local deities in Kathmandu - perhaps the patron saint of tourist income. Like millions of others, I grew up endlessly rereading his adventures, and 'Tintin in Tibet' must have been the first time I ever even heard of Nepal. It paints a wonderful picture of life here and in Tibet, featuring levitating Buddhist monks and even the Yeti. OK, so it's a little exaggerated, but overall it does the place justice. Copies of that book are on sale everywhere here, (even in the supermarket), and you can get virtually every panel emblazoned on a T shirt - though not the one we lifted for this website, oddly enough. I wonder how many of the tourists wandering around are here because that book made such a vivid impression on their young minds. Or maybe it was Brad Pitt that did it.

So many other moments crowd my mind, with far too little time left to write them all down.... Random images, like that of another Buddhist monk chuckling softly to himself as we squinted at some tiny birds high in a tree, while he himself was swinging a hand-held prayer wheel.... Or the cheesy pop interpretation of Om Mane Padme Hum which we first heard on an endless loop by the banks of the Rapti river, and has followed us around ever since. (For the first few hours I was convinced it was mysteriously chanting the Spanish obscenity 'Oh Marnie! Vendejo!') As you walk the streets of Thamel, this song tries hard to drown out Tracey Chapman and Portishead, but has a distinctly inauthentic quality, as if it was cooked up by some Californian whose only knowledge of Asian music came from watching reruns of Kung Fu.... And while we're on the subject of Californians, I'll never be able to forget the individual behind me on the bus to Chitwan who, upon noticing that all the buses in Nepal have the brand-name 'Tata' emblazoned across their hoods, informed his girlfriend that this was a slang name for an Englishman. What a maroon.... Nor will we be able to forget the gilded cage of Aqua Birds Camp at Koshi Tappu, where we paid five times more to sleep in a tent than we did to live in luxury in Kathmandu. Fair enough, we had a great guide, use of the jeep, park entry fees, meals taken care of, etcetera, so it was, in fact, not a bad deal. But the outrageous mark-up they charged on beers prompted me to empathize with Tennessee Burt Ward, the refrain of 'I owe my soul to the company store' running through my mind as I plunged through the jungle in search of Bazas.... And spare a thought for the famous Gurkhas - I grew up knowing that they were fearsome warriors with a place of honor in the British army, but that was about it. I now realize that not only are they from Nepal, but they are mercenaries, plain and simple. Pretty smooth, getting people from underdeveloped countries to do your dirty work for you, isn't it? Most Gurkhas are recruited from the area around Pokhara, and the lovely owner of our hotel there (the New Pagoda, in Damside) was an ex-lieutenant who served twenty five years. Imagine that. When I asked what he thought of the English weather, he responded with his recollections of the winter of 1962-3, yet another occasion when Britain was brought to its knees by the elements. That winter would have been far worse than anything he was used to in Nepal. One of his sons had followed in his footsteps, and ended up in Kosovo, poor sod, although he was now safely in Brunei. Makes you think a bit more about UN peace-keeping forces, thinking of mercenaries propping them up. But then, I suppose very few people ever join the army for reasons other than poverty and lack of opportunity.

Two last thoughts on the local wildlife: it's nice to be walking along a bustling thoroughfare and realize that an elephant just passed you by, but the thought of these incredibly intelligent creatures being condemned to a life of servitude is quite distressing. By booking our trip to Chitwan ourselves and not going with a package deal, we avoided having to suffer the indignity of the compulsory elephant ride. Unfortunately, while trying to squeeze the last cent from our park admission fee ,we took the canoe ride along the Rapti - which was great - and ended up at the elephant breeding center - which was not. Wild elephants are reported to be extirpated in Nepal, but that would be news to the people who manage the tame ones in Suaraha. While we were there, a rouge male was trying to get at the captive females, and we would occasionally hear a sudden gale of noise as people would try to chase this guy off, with him trumpeting in anger. Learning from the experiences of a nearly deceased German who almost rode his bicycle right into this loner, we never strayed to far when birding in that area.

Moving from mammals to reptiles, in Pokhara we graduated from crocodiles to snakes. While casually watching a Pond Heron, we realized he was standing next to an extremely long constrictor of some kind. This was OK with me - the miracle of optics notwithstanding, there was still a long way between us and him - but for Doreen, with her deep dread of snakes, it was quite alarming. A couple of days later, while she and I took slightly divergent paths through the forest, I had the vague sense that something dead was nearby, as well as noticing a few unusually fat flies buzzing around. Thinking little of it, we sat beneath a banyan tree for a while (it was an abandoned village) to see if any birds were around, then walked back. This time we both took Doreen's route and, looking to my right, I noticed that I had previously passed right by a dead snake, all seven or eight feet of him hanging from a tree beside the path. Obviously snakes are no more popular here than anywhere else - a sad fact for them, and also for us, who would rather let them get on with their lives a good distance from wherever we might happen to be, and thereby avoid the prospect of walking into any dead ones.

Finally, I have to thank the great and wise Robert Sheckley for his concept of metaphoric deformation, and it's attendant panzaism. Basically, if being quixotic means seeing giants where there are only windmills, panzaism can be defined as seeing windmills instead of giants. There is a danger that the more you travel, the more your senses might overload and cause you to hallucinate the everyday instead of perceiving the extraordinary. This first hit me in Pokhara, when we jumped into a cab being driven by Ice T. Unless it was just the Lariam.

The main drag, Suaraha

The main drag, Suaraha

Doreen: India

December 2, 2000

Since our arrival in India, well over two weeks ago, I continue to think that soon things will start to fall apart - because, up to now, everything’s been great. We spent our first two weeks in the Uttar Pradesh district, which seemed like a cross between the green mountains of Vermont and the highlands of Scotland. The lodges we’ve stayed in have ranged from New Mexico-like retreats to a former raja’s palace – and we’re still on budget! The food, (for the most part), has been delicious and safe. Even Delhi has been great. The hotel we’re staying at, in the Paharganj district, is as close to a Super 8 as you can get, and that suits us fine after our two weeks in the wild. The weather has been pleasant and the people polite, reserved and helpful – for the most part. Internet access, at least in Delhi, is quite fast, and we’ve even managed to log on from our hotel room, a very big plus. Overall this wasn’t the picture I had in my mind when I imagined us here, but we’re finding that India is a beautiful, intense and tourist friendly country.

On the downside, there have been a few bumps along the way. We’d decided to hire a taxi to get from Delhi to Corbett National Park instead of taking the train, because we didn’t want to deal with the extreme bureaucracy of the train station on our first morning here. The drive turned out to be a nail-biting 6 ½ hour game of chicken with oncoming traffic. The overnight train ride takes a lot longer, but it’s far more relaxing - even if you must share your compartment with a very loud snorer, as we did on the way back. Another strong dislike was Ramnagar, the gateway town to Corbett. There are only two reasons to stay there overnight: one is to get your entry permit for Corbett, and the other is to try your luck at seeing a very special bird - the Ibisbill. Since we didn’t find the Ibisbill on our first visit, we had to return to Ramnagar for another night. The locals, especially the teenage boys, either disliked birdwatchers in general or us in particular, and seemed to enjoy staring at us from a distance of two feet whenever possible. It’s hard to concentrate on birding under those conditions, but we tried our best.

Monday December 25, 2000

Since my last update on India we have a slightly more tainted picture of India and may even leave for Thailand a few days earlier than planned. All in all, it hasn’t been too bad, aside from Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Although it’s a very impressive building I wouldn’t return to Agra, even for a rare bird sighting (and the Yamuna river isn't bad for birding). Our first mistake was booking a hotel one kilometer from the Taj Mahal, assuming we could take a leisurely stroll there. We were obviously not thinking clearly. It’s impossible to walk two feet without being continually and constantly harassed from every direction, more than we've experienced in any other Indian city. A better plan would have been for us to take a train to Bharatpur and then hire a taxi for the day to Agra.

As much as we disliked Agra, we absolutely loved Bharatpur, where the Keoladeo Ghana National Park is located. It’s the best birding place we’ve ever been to and the Falcon Guest House was the friendliest hotel we’ve stayed at so far. Since the beginning of our trip there have only been a couple of occasions when we’ve spoken with our fellow travelers, but at the Falcon every night was an incredibly social time where we would spend hours hanging out with the other guests, exchanging travel tales and e-mail addresses. We originally planned to spend five or six days there but it was so cozy that in the end stayed a total of eleven nights. Keoladeo is home to more than 360 species of bird, with the most famous being the rare Siberian Crane and, thankfully, a pair did return this winter. The park is also one of India’s least expensive and easiest to deal with. It’s a short walk from the string of guest houses outside the park (we highly recommend the Falcon Guest House) and there’s no need to hire a jeep or guide, since the whole park can be covered on foot or by bicycle.

Personally I think we enjoyed India much more because most of our time was spent in and around the national parks. We didn’t go out of our way to see any of the major tourist sites, (except for the Taj Mahal), and that worked out fine for us. The irritating teenage boys were the biggest downside, occasionally causing one or other of us to lose our temper. And while we’re on the dangers and annoyances section: Ranthambore is supposed to be the best park to see tigers but we had an awful time at the Ankur Hotel there and would strongly recommend that people avoid it..

Two days ago we happily left Delhi to find ourselves in the nicest city we’ve been in since Kathmandu - Panaji, state capital of Goa. It’s a wonderful backwater with great hotels and restaurants, and it’s great to relax and enjoy the Christmas season here.

Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur. There are birds everywhere here except in this picture

Keoladeo Ghana National Park, Bharatpur. There are birds everywhere here except in this picture

Friday January 19, 2001

Just a few quick words about the final few weeks of our India trip. Goa was just plain enjoyable. We were very lucky to hook up with an English birder who now lives in Goa and runs birding tours around the state. He also informed us of a great birding camp called Backwoods, and we spent a few day there also. If we left India immediately after Goa I think that would have been ideal, but unfortunately we had to spend another ten days in or around Chennai. At this point I think both Bill and I had just grown a little tired of India, and more than anything else needed a big change. We did manage to do some birding in the south east and we're quite pleased to say that we managed to see over one third of the birds species of the Indian subcontinent. What an achievement.

Goan taxis in the rain. The brilliant Ambassador (a living 1954 Morris Oxford) is in the middle

Goan taxis in the rain. The brilliant Ambassador (a living 1954 Morris Oxford) is in the middle

Bill: India

New Delhi, December 2, 2000

Thecable people hit town

Well, here we are then. After much anticipation (and a fair amount of trepidation) we've finally made it to India, and have had a great time so far. The food, the music, and the wildlife have all been wonderful. Maybe taking the reverse route from Nepal helped acclimate us - or maybe we've been living too long in New York - but the horror stories we heard about India seem to have been somewhat exaggerated. And, after spending our first couple of weeks way out in the middle of nowhere, we now seem to be having culture shock in reverse - at first I couldn't understand why all the traffic in Delhi would stop at the same time, and then I realized: traffic lights! Wow!

Royal Nepal Airlines have something of a reputation for poor service, so when our flight from Kathmandu to Delhi was delayed we were hardly surprised. The masterstroke was when we had to leave the departure lounge, walk across the runway to the plane, and identify our luggage before it could be loaded into the hold. Actually, the cool Nepali night was a pleasant change from the hot air and fuming passengers of the departure lounge, so that was OK with us. And not having a connection to make, we were able to be relatively relaxed about the whole palaver.

Not so the irate Indian businessman I got talking to while waiting in line.  (He was kind enough to tell us that there were separate check-in lines for men and women, which was a good thing because Kathmandu airport works only on the rumor principle - no announcements, no information screens, just a gazelle-like following of the herd). The businessman had to make a connecting flight to Mumbai, and his chances of getting home became increasingly slim as the night wore on. He was a nice enough guy, but as he bitched and moaned about the inefficiency of everything Nepalese, he began to remind me of a stereotypical Englishman complaining about Ireland. This matched a certain anti-Indian sentiment we had already encountered in some Nepalis - a familiar resentment towards their bigger, richer, bullying neighbors. That 15 minute time difference is very important to Nepal, where so much else of their culture is dominated by India. (Of course, we can't go too far with this Britain/Ireland comparison. After all, India and Ireland were both mercilessly exploited by the British empire for centuries, so the analogy falls apart right there. Yes, it's me. I'm the bad guy. I admit it).

Meanwhile, while not panicking about the late departure, I was becoming increasingly worried about whether or not there would be anyone from our hotel waiting to meet us at Delhi airport, a location not high on our list of favorite places. I'd made the mistake of checking my e-mail correspondence with the Raja Hotel just before leaving, and they hadn't actually confirmed they would send a car to pick us up. Would we find ourselves the Out-of Towners, fresh rubes for Delhi's ruthless taxi drivers to drive wherever they fancied?

In the event, there wasn't one person waiting to pick us up, there were two. It seems some hotel to we'd e-mailed a vague inquiry to several months before had taken this as a booking, and faithfully sent someone to meet us. What efficiency - we felt guilty, but not guilty enough to go with the driver, especially as the name of the hotel on his card wasn't one we'd heard of. Very strange. Must be an indication of multiple ownership. His sign was very nicely printed, though.

The little man from the Raja ran off at great speed, leading us through a maze of unlit tunnels, rather like the ending of Westworld. We chased after him, huffing and puffing, clutching the bags we had refused to relinquish and hoping we were running to a taxi and not to meet our fate. It began to remind me of some archetypical rite of passage. Or maybe I was just overtired.

If it did symbolize our rebirth, then the new world was pretty strange. The lobby of the Raja Hotel was very posh, but the initial impression faded when we found ourselves in a windowless yellow tomb. Well, what the hell - it was clean, we were leaving the next day, and at eleven dollars a night it was hard to complain about. Especially as it had cable TV and we were able to watch our first American movie in over ten weeks, appropriately enough The Cable Guy. It's a film we'd been less than thrilled with back home, but it worked a lot better in Delhi after we washed down our Lariam with Indian whisky. When, over the next couple of weeks, we discovered what unbelievably bad American detritus ends up on Indian cable, we realized how lucky we were that night - or, god help us, we might have ended up enjoying Mr. Wrong. The mind reels.

The splendor of Indian pop

As part of our intensive planning for this trip, we'd spend rainy Saturday mornings flipping between the two Indian TV channels you get on Manhattan cable. They would mainly feature musical clips from the latest Bollywood movies, and we got to know some of the hits that we're hearing here now. We may have been nervous about what India would really be like, but we knew two things for sure: we loved the food, and we really enjoyed the music. We've found that in India, unlike Nepal, you nearly always get a TV in your hotel room, and apart from BBC world and Star, (the networkthat specializes in Matt Helm films), you get dozens of channels playing nothing but music videos. What's even better is the fact that, since every Bollywood movie ever made is at least partially a musical, the video channels show clips that span several decades - even Indian MTV has no evidence of a generation gap. It's great to see the current, svelte pop stars being played back-to-back with their chubby counterparts from the sixties. And there doesn't appear to be any age discrimination either - some of the pop stars even seem as old as Mack Jigger. It just means you need a few extra attractive young people dancing about, (as seen in the video for Life Is a Highway - you know, the one with the stubby Canadian in tight jeans who claimed to do it his way all night long).

I have no knowledge of Indian pop whatsoever, other than the fact that it's all highly enjoyable. (With the deadly exception of the current hit that rips-off a Billy Joel tune. So tragic). It's like a gigantic sponge that omnivorously absorbs everything in its path, and yet consistently manages to retain its own identity. You get flashes of all kinds of music, but nothing seems out of place. Our current favorite is a Cabaret-like clip from the seventies that, while drawing heavily ondisco, incorporates Spanish trumpet, tap-dancing, swirling synths, and a rapping Superman. So ahead of its time. I have yet to find out the name of this song, although I could attempt the tried and true method of singing it in a record store. Might get some funny looks, but where do you start? How do you jump into a genre this big? It's a lot like India really. Tourism is Nepal's biggest industry, and you can't help but notice how everything there is geared towards your comfort and your dollar, but India is a world unto itself.

New Delhi, December 4, 2000

The wonderful world of Dilli Haat

One myth which was put to bed within hours of our arrival in India was the one about the Indian food here not being as good as it is elsewhere. Don't you believe it. The food is great, and the gravest danger facing lovers of Indian food such as ourselves is the threat of stuffing ourselves silly. The hardest part is ignoring the delicious scent of street food that constantly wafts by - it might smell great, it probably tastes great, but the standards of hygiene almost certainly leave much to be desired. So we find ourselves denied the temptations of samosas and bhel puri, two favorites which, for some reason, never appear on any restaurant menus. Probably because they are so indelibly regarded as street food. Too bad for us. How long until we crack, relinquishing to the almighty samosa and throwing caution to the winds?

Luckily for our intestinal systems, Doreen discovered Dilli Haat, an Indian tourist board sponsored market that sells handicrafts and, more importantly, safe street food from all over India. Praise the lord - we were saved. We've just got back from indulging in what I've long considered the perfect meal - a smorgasbord of bhel puri, panni puri, sev puri, and vegetable samosas courtesy of the Rhajasthan restaurant. It was all excellent, especially the sev puri which was the best I've ever tasted. (OK, so I've only ever had it at Diwana's before, and it's reallygood there as well. Maybe I just have no critical faculties when it comes to sev puri). If you ever find yourself in Delhi, you really ought to check out Dilli Haat. Unless you're brave enough to go in for the real street food, it's a unique experience. And of course, if I get violently ill in the next twelve hours, discount everything I've just said.

Panaji, December 25, 2000

The elusive Ibisbill

How dreadfully remiss of me not to have written anything for this website for three weeks. What have I been doing with my time? Well, we've pretty much been birding our brains out, which hasn't left too much time for other pursuits - especially when you're supposed to be keeping extensive notes and uploading your trip reports for the delectation of all the other globe-trotting birders out there. That's my excuse, anyway.

In fact, looking back I don't seem to have written much about anything anyway. Not much of a surprise there, really, but perhaps I should fill in some gaps. Here we go then: after our cable night in Delhi we hopped it to the Corbett National Park area. We spent some time at a couple of nice places on the beautiful Ramganga river, and then spent a night in the government rest-house located slap-bang in the middle of the park. A great location, admittedly, but the rest-house itself veered so far left of seedy that it ran right into skanky. We were very happy that we only spent the one night there although, inevitably, it was the Lariam night. Oh dear. The restaurant was pretty good, oddly enough, so we were able to maintain our continual diet of tasty Indian food. We also spent a couple of nights in Corbett's gateway town, Ramnagar - or, to give it its proper name, Butphekaiderhoe, a place where even the banks won't change hard currency and the only entertainment in town is birdwatcher-watching. You have to admire it though; despite housing the HQ of one of India's main tourist attractions it just doesn't give a toss about tourists and maintains a stubborn integrity.

We also spent a few days in India's Switzerland (it says here), staying in a cool little town called Nainital. Our birding book rather tartly describes it as "a shabby relic of the Raj", and it did indeed have its origin as a hill station where gin-swilling colonialists would escape the epidemics of summer - rather like Newport Rhode Island, in fact. Nowadays it's a charming little town that's very popular with Indian tourists seeking the same cooler temperatures. We were there a little off-season - our hotel was lovely, even though it got as cold as an English bedsit in the evenings, and had the same obligatory one-rung electric fire. But the birding was great and it was interesting to be in a touristy town that was touristy for Indians, not for foreigners.

After this we returned to the questionable charms of Ramnagar in an effort to find a particular bird called the Ibisbill; the river that runs right through the center of town is reputedly one of the best places in the world to find this rare species. Barely a day goes by when some sad nebbish doesn't pick his way through the garbage on the riverbanks in search of this damn bird. And since Ramnagar is, not to put to fine a point on it, a dump, there's isn't much for the locals to do except poke fun at these peculiar people who stare intently at rocks though high-tech optics. And indeed, many would argue that a) it's their town in the first place so they can do what they like, and b) birdwatchers are pretty comical anyway. Nor would I disagree with either of these propositions. I am constrained, however, to point out that it's not much fun to birdwatch while assorted kids and adults stare at you from a distance of three feet. And so we bravely ran away. (I am also constrained to point out that certain sources have argued that the Ibisbill does not even exist, and people only say they've seen it to piss off other birdwatchers. Paranoid? Me? What are you talking about?)

Vedanthangal bird sanctuary. OK so the picture's crap, but you get the idea - a breeding colony of tens of thousands of birds. We liked it

Vedanthangal bird sanctuary. OK so the picture's crap, but you get the idea - a breeding colony of tens of thousands of birds. We liked it

The elusive pre-pay booth

From Ramnagar, we took the sleeper train to Delhi. What fun to spend eight hours on a freezing train with the world championship of snoring going on while the Lariam makes your hands feel like they belong to someone else. Believe me, if you're expecting Marilyn Monroe to jump into your compartment and start making Manhattans, you've got another thing coming. Since the train was scheduled to arrive in Delhi at four a.m. this was one of the only times in my life when I was praying for the train to be late. Luckily, we'd booked a hotel near the train station. Unluckily, we booked it near the wrong train station.

Whenever we fly into a new city, we try to book a hotel in advance and have them send a taxi to pick us up, thereby avoiding the inevitable melee of clamoring cab drivers. It can be the worst part of any trip, so why deal with it if you don't have to? Somehow we missed this step when returning to Delhi, possibly because we were arriving by train, possibly because we'd been there before, I don't know. Anyway, it was an error, and when the train managed to arrive only an hour behind schedule we were on our own. Fortunately, airports and train stations in Delhi are supposed to have pre-paid taxi booths where you can pay for your ride in advance and just hand the receipt to the driver, neatly sidestepping the possibility of being ripped off. It's an excellent idea and, whenever you arrange for your hotel to have a car waiting, you see these pre-pay booths all over the place. Naturally, in this instance it was impossible to find one and we spent several minutes in a fruitless search, trying to avoid hordes of screaming cab drivers while we leapt over banks of sleeping people (I told you living in New York would come in handy. This place is a lot harder on people from civilized countries. Denmark, for example).

We picked an auto-rickshaw (or tuk-tuk, if you'd prefer) at random, brandished the card of our hotel as if it was a magic talisman, and sped off into the night. And while Old Delhi station was a hive of industry at this time of morning, the streets around it were awfully deserted. We were both suffering from lack of sleep, and had also cunningly planned the journey to coincide with our Lariam night, so our nerves were a little jangled well before a couple of scary looking guys wrapped in blankets flagged us down at a makeshift roadblock on an otherwise empty street. They exchanged some words with the driver, smiled, and then one of them leaned in the rickshaw. This is it, we both thought, and as our lives flashed in front of our eyes neither of us could believe that we still hadn't seen the Ibisbill. Scary guy number one looked a little like Klaus Kinski circa For a Few Dollars More, perhaps if he'd been cast as a baddie in Lawrence of Arabia - or maybe it was just the blanket. He proffered his hand, smiled encouragingly, and asked where we were from, as people around here tend to do. In a voice which may have had some of the vibrato of adolescence I bravely enquired who he was, at which point he stepped back and the auto-rickshaw resumed its journey. The driver told us they were cops. Well, perhaps. But where were the uniforms? They might have been a bit chilly in the night, but those damn blankets certainly made us a little uneasy. When we finally arrived at the hotel we capered across the reception area like two jolly escaped asses.

Captain American and The Falcon

From Delhi (and Dilli Haat) we moved on to Bharatpur, where we enjoyed the extraordinary selection of avifauna on offer there, not to mention the wonderful hospitality of the Falcon Guest House. The owner, Rajni Singh, has the rare gift of bringing total strangers together, and instead of working on this web page we spent every night hanging out by the fire and discussing the state of the world with the assorted oddballs that passed through her doors. We had the rare opportunity of exchanging views with people from all over the world, people with whom we would never normally communicate. We met tons of interesting people - Vikings, lawyers, even a Nader voter. Even a man who, upon graduating from medical school in the fifties, had been posted to the furthest outpost of Uganda where there was nothing to do except drink and hunt fowl. Sort of a living Graham Greene novel. It was good to meet all these people, all of whom had a fascinating story to tell, none of whom we would ever have met in our normal life and circle of friends.

The Falcon really brought home the difference between a guest-house and a hotel - you really did feel like you were a guest in someone's home, and all the patrons would remark on what an unusual place it was. Several people abandoned their itineraries and spent the rest of their vacations holed up at the Falcon, and none of them were even birdwatchers. Crazy. We'd gone there because the owner's husband was a naturalist and, even though he had retired from guiding himself, he was able to hook us up with an excellent guide. But it was the force of Rajni's personality that really made the place unique. She was tough, smart, and funny in a way that many Indian matriarchs might be behind closed doors, but which, as an outsider, you rarely get to see. (One shining moment: the Australian who refused to touch Kingfisher and would only drink Bullet beer being loudly addressed as "Excuse me! Bullet-man!")

We got a hard insight into the differences between Indian and western culture when Dinesh, one of the kids that worked there, suffered a family tragedy. His brother and two other men were run down by a truck as they were riding their bicycles across a busy road at night. The brother was killed outright, another died at the hospital, the third lost his legs, and the driver sped off, never to be found. Rajni told us about the life that lay ahead for Dinesh's sister in-law. A woman of twenty, she would have to live the rest of her life in mourning, never leaving the house of her in-laws. That was it for her, unless she could remarry, and the chances of that were very slim due to her having kids. According to Rajni, this was probably because she did something very bad in a former life - this was karma in action. That certainly put paid to all the warm and fuzzy, half-digested, new-age notions of karma that I'd been half conscious of carrying around until now. All that instant gratification crap of what goes around coming around was completely missing the point. Hinduism now looked like the same old shell game as Christianity, where a lifetime of suffering is worth it to get points in the next - except this one works in reverse as well. Pretty sophisticated, as indeed it must be. They've been keeping down the underclass here for millennia. (Of course, Hinduism has also produced such great thinkers as the Buddha, so it must have something going for it. Too bad I'm far too shallow to gain a fuller understanding of this very complex religion. I'll have to stick to the Church of Bob).

Agra vacation

When we waved goodbye to Delhi and Dilli Haat, we took the expensive tourist train to Agra to see the world's most beautiful building. (Mainly because you can't go to India and not see the Taj Mahal, no matter how much of deranged birdwatcher you are. It'd be like going to New York and not seeing the statue of liberty, something I really must get around to one day). Attempting to learn from our mistakes, we'd booked a hotel in Agra and asked them to send a car. For some reason they'd asked us to call from the station when we arrived - at least that was the end of the stick we grabbed. When we arrived at the station, we couldn't find a working phone, so we found a cab ourselves and spent twenty minutes listening to the driver's friend trying to sell us a tour of all Agra's historic sites. Having been in Agra for less than an hour, we were able to fend off his advances in good humor, naive fools that we were. When we arrived at the hotel, a disgruntled employee demanded to know why we hadn't taken the taxi that was waiting for us at the station. Well, we would have if we'd known he was going to be there - but even if we had, it's debatable if we'd have known that the sign for "Mrs. Spare" was meant for us. Although it was quite an appropriate name in the light of future events.

About a month before we got to India, the government considered doubling the entrance fees to all its national monuments, and then put the increase into force just a few days later. Understandably, this enraged many tour operators who now had to go and ask for more money from their clients, making them look a bit shifty. It didn't make independent tourists very happy either. This hike was, I think, on top of another price spike at the beginning of the year, but I could be wrong. Either way, India was a lot cheaper a year ago, but it's still a pretty good deal for westerners. It's just that this kind of thing only adds to your general, (not entirely unfounded), paranoia about being ripped off all the time.

Specifically: when you get to the Taj, entrance is listed at $10, but when you pay it turns out to be $20. Quite steep for the budget traveler, but what the hell. Apparently the extra ten bucks is for admission to various other attractions, which is of course no good if you get to the Taj at the end of the day. Also, in an interesting twist, it doesn't really get you into the other places. Just sort of. But there it is, it's the Taj, what the hell, so after forking over what, on a good day, would be our daily budget, we walked to the obligatory frisking point. After this - a good way to get to know people in India - the chap who searched my backpack found my laptop and told me that it was forbidden to take electronic devices past the gate. I found this a little annoying. After all, if there had been a sign alerting me to this fact I could have made other plans, but I now had the choice of either eating forty bucks or leaving an extremely important object with a bunch of guys at the gate to the Taj. Not a likely scenario - we're too paranoid to even leave it chained up in a hotel room.

At this point a strange thing happened, and I turned into a carrot. Or, to put it another way: this really pissed me off. The world class badgering had already thwarted our attempt to walk the single kilometer from the hotel and this was the final nail in the camel's back - I'd had enough of Agra. My mind went on hold and my mouth worked purely on the adrenaline being pumped into my blood. It was your basic fight or flight mode, and although I was planning to leave and chalk the entrance fee up to experience, a fight was what my viscera wanted. So Mr. Spare went into action and I said what I felt. India's good like that - it gets you in touch with your inner feelings. And while I was being unmediated, he just waved me in, which was hardly an ideal solution from his point - what if I'd been carrying a bomb?

The whole thing was, as our older friends might say, a bit of a downer. It's never much fun to get that pissed off, and even though I was now able to revel in the glories of Mughal architecture, I wasn't in much of a mood to enjoy it. There's that song about someone being unable to concentrate on the giant albatross, the singing trees, etc., because all he can think about is the hole in his shoe and his wet foot. I seem to be thinking about that song a lot lately, as I observe the wonders of the world and find myself letting little things get in the way of the moment. It's not so much my inability to throw myself more deeply into direct experience that I regret - the really annoying part is having to listen to the feeble psychedelic leftover playing in my head.

Obligatory picture of the Taj

Obligatory picture of the Taj

Panaji, December 26, 2000

The some clichés are actually true dept.

The image of Goa as a laid-back, chilled-out oasis is one of the most common clichés you hear when traveling. After five weeks in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan we began to doubt that any part of India could justify these labels. We were wrong.

We arrived in Panaji, Goa's sleepy state capital, the day before Christmas Eve. It certainly looked different - the palm trees, the Portuguese architecture and the oddly Hindu looking Christian shrines immediately alert you to the fact that you're not in Delhi anymore, Toto. And, amazingly enough, it is a laid-back, chilled-out oasis. Incredible. We suspect that the beaches in the northern part of the state are not so peaceful now that they are a Mecca for pill gobbling Euro-ravers, but have little desire to find out for ourselves.

But Panaji (or Panjim, if you prefer) was a great place for us to spend Christmas. We're staying in our first real hotel for some time - so what if they've doubled the rates for the holiday season? A little bit of luxury is our Christmas present to each other. The towels are white and fluffy, the air-conditioning works, and fresh toilet paper magically appears in our room ever day; the pool pales into insignificance beside these extravagances. We're checking into a cheaper hotel tomorrow, but we're not leaving town. (Besides, we've found a really good bird guide with his own jeep).

Delhi was really interesting, not least on a purely architectural level. Designed by an Englishman who despised Indian architecture and completed in 1931, it was intended as a symbol of Britain's enduring presence in India. No wonder there's something distinctly Nurembergian about the place. Panaji is a perfect contrast. You know you're know still in India, but the Portuguese heritage lives on in the beautiful white churches, sweet baked goods and even sweeter port. People in south India have a reputation of being more laid back than their northern cousins, and it's yet another cliché that seems to be really true. Combining this with a Mediterranean culture instead of a northern European one seems to have created a truly nice place. Merry Christmas.

Bangkok, January 18, 2001

Last thoughts on India

We've been in Thailand for a couple of days now, and there's just a couple of things I should write down before our time in India fades into distant memory. So here we go then... Our two weeks in Goa were great. Initial impressions held up, and the only problem was that we were unable to change the date of our flight out - either to get to Thailand sooner or to stay in Goa longer, just so long as we could bypass Chennai (Madras). Why were we booked to spend two weeks in Tamil Nadu anyway, you might ask. Good question. An unhealthy fondness for south Indian cuisine might be one explanation, although discovering that it was widely available in the north made us aware of the redundancy of our original flight plan. Ah well, the last pre-booked flight was to Bangkok, so from here on in we can make it up as we go along. Besides, not that many people seem to visit India's south east, so it was a chance to see a relatively untouristed part of the country.

Our Goan sojourn was a holiday within a holiday, a chance to recreate after the rigors of Rajasthan. The serendipitous discovery of a little camp catering to hardcore British birders - a kind of club paradise for twitchers - made Goa even more enjoyable for us. By basing ourselves in Panaji and then spending a few days at the wonderful Backwoods (not Backwards) Camp we were also able to avoid the quasi-Costa del Sol ambiance of the northern coast. We did, however, end up spending our last two nights up there - we had to, because there's a Cinnamon Bittern that lives by one of the hotels. Sad, aren't we? Only then did we run into the hordes of lager-quaffing e-heads that we feared Goa would be full of. (Nothing wrong with quaffing lager of course, it's just that we birding quaffers tend to keep earlier hours than normal people). And the massed hordes of lobster-red fun lovers were a pretty quiet bunch overall, at least while we were up and about. They probably only got going long after we were safely tucked up in bed. And contrary to expectations, we were not kept awake by those pounding techno rhythms that the youngsters seem to love so much. (Reminds me of the fearsome war cry of the Philistines - "what's wrong with a tune you can whistle?")

So there we were - we were only able to move forward our arrival in Thailand by two days. This gave us ten days in Tamil Nadu. What to do? We booked a couple of days in a business hotel in Madras (Chennai) so that we could update our web page. (Since Kathmandu we haven't been fortunate enough to find an internet cafe that lets us connect with the laptop, so if we can't find a hotel room with direct-dial, we can't update the website). Unfortunately, once we'd checked into the hotel we discovered that the direct dial didn't extend as far as an internet connection, even though it was a local number. Why this was , I don't know, other than the fact that India tends to come up with many unexpected challenges for the intrepid traveler. After banging our heads against a brick firewall for a while, we simply gave up. It could have been the hotel, the local IPass provider, the phone lines in Chennai (Madras), or all three. Instead, we concentrated on trying the old air-conditioning cure for prickly heat. (It doesn't really work, but at least the rash seemed to be prickly heat and not a nasty side-effect of Lariam. Biggest downside: having to listen to Cool for Cats running through my mind as I tried not to scratch).

Madras (Chennai) is an interesting place to pass through, but it's too big to really get to grips with if you don't plan on living there, and we had a hard enough time crossing the road in front of the hotel. (Delhi's roads were more negotiable, even if the people are less aggressive in the south). Instead of trying to get to know Chennai (Madras) we headed down the coast to Mamallapuram - a nice little town that the Tamil Nadu tourist board are trying to turn into the Goa of the south east. It's ringed by beautiful temples dating back to the eighth century, hewn from the living rock (I've been dying to say that. While I'm at it I might as well say "vast Gangetic plain". Thank you). It's a center of stone carving even today, and wherever you go you hear the tap-tap-tap of stone carvers at work - not to mention the entreaties of shop owners trying to persuade you to buy the stuff. Our hotel had many interesting life-size statues in the forecourt, including one of JFK that was dwarfed by an adjacent Gandhi. I really meant to take a picture of that.

I have to admit, we ended up in Mamallapuram more of less by mistake, and given the choice would have proceeded straight from Goa to Thailand. However, it was quite a pleasant place to relax and do our version of a Corona commercial. The real reason we picked it was that it's quite near a bird sanctuary, so we were able to happily spend our days gazing at Spot-billed Pelicans and baby Openbills. Ah, the action-packed life of the inveterate birdwatcher. Back in Mamallapuram we amused ourselves by stuffing our faces with excellent south Indian food (we're going to miss it) and sniggering at the other tourists. (I bet you think that's funny, coming form birdwatchers). Since we're not strong enough to carry the Lonely Planet's India bible, we don't know what it says about Mamallapuram, but it's probably along the lines of how out of the way and unspoiled it is. Every edition for every country has a few of these places noted, and eventually they all get filled up with people questing the unspoiled. It's like club culture, where everyone looks for the happening place, which then ceases to be happening when they all find it (or so I've been told - I wouldn't know, being in bed with my cocoa by nine every night).

Whatever the reason, the typical tourist in Mamallapuram strolls around wearing little but an ill-fitting chadar, fake dreads, and an attempt at a beatific smile - I hadn't seen this many cosmic wazzocks since the '79 solstice at Stonehenge. I'm no fan of Zappa, but the tart lyrics of Flower Punk rang through my mind as I observed a psychedelic gleam in every eye. The fact that all the nick-nack shops sell a variety of chillums may have something to do with this, or maybe it's the abundance of ashrams in the immediate vicinity. They probably account for the other major species of tourist, the New Aged - silver haired questers for Truth who wear a greater amount of ill-chosen Indian clothes but still fail to blend in - possibly due to their imperialist habit of loudly shushing Indians at the local dance festival (also a big tourist draw, apparently). It may have just been that we were champing at the bit to get to Thailand, but there was an overwhelming sense of smugness about Mamallapuram's tourists that we didn't see anywhere else in India. Maybe we were just jealous because they were where they wanted to be and we weren't.

Mamallapuram temple, circa 730 A.D. Note the impressive lingham, the only item not hewn from the living rock

Mamallapuram temple, circa 730 A.D. Note the impressive lingham, the only item not hewn from the living rock