© 2010 John David Becker

the taj mahal.  a testament to love…

Help Needed: Haiti hit with massive quake.

Haiti was hit yesterday by what could be considered the worst natural disaster for the region in the last 200 years.

An earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.0, shocked the country just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday, collapsing buildings and cutting water and electricity services in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. Aftershocks of 4.5 magnitude or higher continued through the night and early Wednesday, thwarting immediate aid efforts for an estimated 3 million affected by the quake. Thousands are expected dead or injured and many more will be displaced with their homes reduced to rubble.

charity: water’s two local partners, Partners in Health and Concern Worldwide, are reacting to the disaster swiftly and comprehensively.*
We need your support. In the interest of immediate relief, we’re asking that donations be made straight to our partners.

To donate to Partners in Health’s efforts, click here.
To donate to Concern Worldwide’s efforts, click here.

Already one of the poorest and densely-populated countries in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti has struggled to overcome the effects of a slew of rough storms in 2008 before this week’s disaster. More than 4 million people (42% of the population) already lack access to safe drinking water. Disasters undercut development efforts tremendously.

*charity: water started working with PIH in 2007 and has since funded six freshwater projects with the organization to bring safe water to more than 25,000 people in rural Haiti (learn more here). Last year, we started partnering with Concern Worldwide in Haiti by funding eight spring protection systems, which will provide clean water for at least 6,000 people, once completed.

Lake Phewa, Nepal ~ © 2009 JDB

It’s time to revisit our travels.  The pictures from Pokhara, 6 hours west of Kathmandu by bus caught my eye today.  It’s a little respite from the chaos of Kathmandu but still delivers an overabundance of westernization like Thamel.  It’s really the gateway city to the Himalaya for most people.  Just over the mountain to the north you can see the tip of Fishtail.

Fishtail ~ © JDB

Fishtail ~ © 2009 JDB

Hotels are all over the place.  We were told it was high season, but Pokhara was a ghost town compared to Kathmandu.  Tours will pre-book hotels so some nicer places may be taken up.  We ended up liking Hotel Blue Heaven.  For $15 US/night we had a private balcony and a decent room with a really nice bathroom (western toilet).  We found the beds to be horrible everywhere in Kathmandu.  Pokhara is no exception.  I’m much better now at sleeping on my back thanks to the thin padding between my bones and a plywood surface.  If you want to stay at a hotel with benefits, go to Chhetri Sisters Guest House.  It is expensive but they train local women as trekking guides, empower local women’s groups and other local endeavors.  There are little secret places like a Buddhist meditation retreat.  Sometimes you just have to keep your ears open and you’ll pick up tips from other travelers.

Lake Phewa is the most predominant feature.  After spending time in the dry and polluted Kathmandu Valley, the lake is a true oasis. You can rent kayaks, sailboats or canoes by the hour or day.  There are secluded hotels and restaurants that you can only get to by boat.  Barahi Temple is on an island off South Lakeside, near the Royal Palace property.  We enjoyed drinking coffee and chai at Mike’s Restaurant.  It was the only place with tables right on the waterfront.

Rooftop of Hotel Blue Heaven ~ © 2009 JDB

The World Peace Pagoda sits atop on of the many high hills surrounding the lake.  We took a trip up the opposite side and gently paraglided back to earth.  From high above the Pokhara Valley you can see the Annapurna mountain range and the glacial rivers running through.  We spotted the Tibetan Village we visited the day before.  Great peaceful experience. We used Sunrise Paragliding which is the only outfit I’d recommend.

Back on land, it’s easy to stock up on supplies for an upcoming trek.  Pokhara has professional outfitters as well as designer fakes.  If you find a cheap down jacket or sleeping bag, it’s filled with chicken feathers.  Make you’re decisions wisely because chicken feathers probably don’t insulate as well as synthetics or goose down when wet or dry.  I doubt anyone would want to figure this out at Annapurna or Everest base camp.

Pokhara has plenty of ambiance, but if you find a good place to eat you should return and order the same thing over and over.  Any attempt to make decent food in Nepal seems to fail.  DO get your coffee and breakfast at Perky Beans in Central Lakeside.  Only place we really enjoyed in all of Pokhara.  Wish we found it on day 1!

Lake Phewa ~ 2009 JDB

We flew back from Pokhara because the bus we took to get there ended up being 9 hours.  Horrible.  I really enjoyed the 20 minute flight back to Kathmandu.  Some things are worth every penny.  Travel in Nepal is unpredictable so don’t feel bad about spending money if you have it.  Plus if you get in line early for the plane (first come, first serve) you’ll be happy if you score a seat on the north side of the plane (depending on which direction you’re flying obviously).  The Himalaya are stunning above cloud level.  Even better if your flight is around sunset.

Himalaya from the air ~ 2009 JDB

Grampa Franz with my mom Carol in Belgium, 1999

I cannot remember exactly when we heard the news but I know I was sitting in the lobby of the Sita Guest House in Varanasi, India when I read the email.  My Grandfather had passed away on November 5th, 2009.  We were fortunate to have seen him a couple weeks before we left for our travels and were certain he would pass while we were away.  Nothing really prepares you, but I knew at the time I was saying goodbye.  Despite his severe dementia, I knew in some strange way that he accepted this as our final parting as well.

It was humbling to be in the presence of someone who – in no small way – has left his mark upon hundreds and maybe thousands of souls.  Someone who has influenced his children and on down the generational line.  As a professor, he had shown people another world in his yearly pilgrimages to Europe and beyond.  I guess it is this legacy that I have chased, all the while forgetting that his legacy came at certain costs, too.  Even still, his task was accomplished quietly – with humility and grace.

It is impossible to quantify the gifts David Lincoln Franz bestowed upon the world.  I’m certain that if I tried I would soon realize that to any magnitude, I was measuring greatness…

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Today was my first day home in two months.  I was out of the apartment before 7am and headed to Murray’s Bagels for breakfast.  A quick haircut and a coffee in Union Sq. to follow.  Walked to Beth Israel Medical Center to meet Sue.  Sat in the waiting room and listened to my neighbor chatting with his son.  He was in his 60’s.  He was saying things like, “A man kissing another man, disgusting!”  “Putting a ring on another man’s finger?”   “Two men married?  I don’t understand it!”

In 1909, I may have been able to say, “Black men able to vote?”  and “Equal rights for women?”  In 1964 I would have been labeled a racist/sexist.  I was born in an era that thought beyond such negative thinking and close-mindedness.  I’ve traveled the world to determine for myself what truth there may or may not be in stereotypes (and yes, there are many truths within stereotypes).  I was raised in a well educated home with strong values and unclouded by religious dogma.  Am I free of negative thoughts and feelings altogether?  No.

So why am I particularly offended by opinions held by anyone who watches FOX News?  People who voted for McCain/Palin?  People who consider O’Riley or Limbaugh prophets?  Well, I usually don’t care.  They embarrass themselves with ignorance.  I’m ashamed of anyone who, 45 years ago, was not allowed to vote and was not allowed to eat or drink in the same places I would have been able to and yet still believes others do not deserve equal rights in the United States.

I’m not saying that the man next to me in the waiting room is wrong for having his feelings about homosexual men (I do not agree with him either).  I’m going so far as to saying that anyone considered a minority in this great country who had great people like Martin Luther King jr., Elizabeth Cady Stanton, John F. Kennedy jr., and Rosa Parks fight for their rights CANNOT turn a blind eye to equal rights for others.  Shame on you if you believe that benefits should not be extended to families of same-sex partners.  Shame on you, unless of course you are willing to give up your own rights.

So welcome home.  Land of the free and home of the brave.  I’m unbelievably happy to be home after 2 months of travel.  I was quickly reminded of how far we’ve come and how far we have yet to go.  In FDR’s inaugural address in 1933, he uttered the famous line, “…let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”  The unknown equals fear.  Back then the unknown was the great depression.  We again face similar challenges, so the speech is worth a read.  Today one of the ‘unkowns’ is still equal rights for all.  Wake up America!  We can do better.

India and Nepal were a blast and all, but Hong Kong has been a taste of all that is right in the world.  Makes me eager to return to New York and rebuild a proper life.  This travel has opened my eyes in a way that all our former travel had not.  I may have been tired of travel before we stepped on the plane to India.  We’ve slept in over 100 different beds in countless different towns, villages and cities around the world in the past 500 days.  Ate food that was delicious and food that was impossible to swallow day-after-day-after-day.  Much has happened over the past two months at home and there’s still more to come.  Enough for us to cut our trip short by two months.

I don’t think I’ll ever regret this decision to return.  I have new insights and new inspirations.  I have renewed patriotism and eagerness to take advantage of all our country has to offer.  I could live in Hong Kong.  I could live in Tokyo.  I could certainly be comfortable in a European city.  For now we live in the most bad-ass city in the world.  New York City.  I couldn’t be more proud of that and I think Sue and I both are wanting a slice of home.  December 3rd we leave Hong Kong.  December 3rd we land and I just may kiss the ground when I get there…

Sadhu: Varanasi, India ~ 2009 John David Becker

If at first you don’t succeed…  The Sadhu’s set themselves apart from other holy men in the Hindu faith.  Living lives of poverty and wandering, they do not collect earthly possessions and do not care about money.  Their bodies are not cremated at a burning ghat on the Ganges; rather they are sunk into the river.

In Nepal, there were supposedly real Sadhu’s and fake Sadhu’s.  The business of being a holy man was too good.  We found Sadhu’s to be hawkish and even more relentless about asking for money than the hawkers selling goods.  They would walk up to you and place flowers on your head and mark you with a bindi: promptly asking you for rupees after.  Not just a token amount either.  If you had a camera, Sadhu’s were more aggressive.  Photo?  200 rupees.  Oh, and you can bargain for less.

In Varanasi, we found the Sadhu’s to be less in-your-face.  I don’t know if they all requested money, but they didn’t actively look for it.  I did get some pictures of a less intimate nature, but I finally found the one Sadhu that I wanted a photograph of.  10 rupees.  Ok.  Get some shots.  Walk away.  Within 20 seconds, I realize I didn’t get the exact shot I wanted.  Went back for round two.  Did you forget me?  10 more rupees.  So I get the shot.  Cost me $0.50USD total.  Such an insignificant amount, but where’s the holy?  Tit-for-tat I guess.

As I sit in total comfort in a Hong Kong hotel room, it’s impossible to not reflect on the past month of travel.  Through Nepal and India, there were plenty of rough moments and plenty of highlights.  The food was up-and-down but usually started well below our baseline.  The poor infrastructure was nothing new and yet this time seemed a bit more harsh on the nerves.  My health more than Sue’s has been questionable almost since the first week.  The only consistent condition is a perpetually stuffy nose.  Coughing, stomach problems, sinus infection, sore throat, lethargy and other various symptoms have been unique and relentless like waves to the shore.

So I’m endlessly thankful for Hong Kong.  A place of civility and modernity.  I couldn’t wait to get here.  I wondered if something happened.  India was always a favorite country.  Been there twice before.  Why is it now so difficult?  Why was Nepal not the wonderland others experienced?  I know health is a major factor in anyone’s ability to enjoy a place.  I don’t think it was entirely that.  I think it comes down to overexposure to one of the fundamental parts of the travel experience.  Randomness and change.

Sue and I spend over six months last year traveling.  This year we started by planning a big move to Japan for teaching.   In that planning, we parted with our dear kitties and our dear apartment – the place we could call home.  Come June, we started our vagabonding.  First in California and then Washington.  Returned to the East for some more random house-holding.  Planned this big four month trip.  Started this big four month trip.  That perpetual motion is exhausting.  The cliche is travel is not less for the experience at hand, but it is definitely more for the experience of home anew.  If our dreams of starting a home and getting a puppy are real.  If my desire to get home and really start working at our business feverishly are real.  If the cliche is real, then we may need to return home sooner.

What a thought.  Cut short travel when we already did so much work for it?  Doing something others only wish they could do?  Why can’t we just find a beach to sit on for the next two months?  I don’t know.  I wish I had the answer.  Sometimes illness can force your hand but wondering if it forces your hand before you’re ready becomes the ultimate question.  Will I feel better and regret returning?  Maybe.  Will I feel better knowing that I did what I could and made a big-boy decision?  Possibly.  Travel doesn’t always have to be right and feel right.  I guess that’s what extended travel enables you to learn.  The future will be determined today most likely.  I’m curious to see which hand we play.

And to further complicate the ebb-and-flow of daily Nepali life and politics, we received an email from the US Embassy in Nepal:

Important Security Announcement for American Citizens in Nepal

This warden message is being issued to alert American citizens that the
Maoist Party (UCPN-Maoist) has announced a number of protest events to
be carried out in November.  In the past, some of these events have
materialized and some have not.  The Maoists announced that they intend
to conduct the following:

*   Nov 1, 2009          – Nationwide torch light rally

*   Nov 2, 2009          – Mass gatherings, picketing of local government offices

*   Nov 4-5, 2009       – Surrounding district administration offices

*   Nov 9, 2009          – Declaration of Autonomous regions

*   Nov 10, 2009        – Protesters will picket and block the main roads leading

into the Kathmandu valley and to the airport

*   Nov 12-13, 2009   – Mass gatherings around the Singh Durbar area

Please be cognizant and aware of your surroundings and what may
transpire. American citizens are strongly urged to avoid mass gatherings
and demonstrations.

So we thought about doing some more work with non-profits 8 hours west of Kathmandu, but this killed that idea.  Our original intent was to leave on November 10th.  Funny how that would be the day the Maoists block the airport.  We’ve heard these disruptions can be insignificant and then we’ve heard they can shut down every restaurant, business and petrol station for the entire time.  That would leave us high and dry.  Pushed our exodus to Tuesday the 3rd.  Heading out to Varanasi, India.  Thank you Maoists for helping us with our itinerary…

Annapurna I & Annapurna South

Annapurna I, Annapurna South & Fishtail ~ 2009 John David Becker

To think these beauties standing at 7,900m and above were once at the bottom of the sea.  We woke at 0430 on October 20th to ascend to 10,000 ft atop Pun Hill.  The sun cracked the early morning sky, painting it’s warmth on the mountain faces.  This was the blessing we earned for two hard days of trekking the Annapurna Circuit.  These mountains will continue their journey skyward long past our days on this planet.  We gain strength reflecting on their permanence.  We are modest and humble in the shadows of the Himalaya.

My thoughts and prayers go to my grandfather…

sue fan & jb ~ 2009 john david becker

sue fan & jb ~ 2009 John David Becker