Highlights: Nepal

Kathmandu Dosas (at Pilgrim's): Even though the bookstore staff was rather grumpy, we have to hand it to the cafe in the back for serving up, on multiple occasions, some mighty fine Dosas.

A real shave: This would be Eli and I'm speaking about my first real straight razor barber shave, complete with multiple aftershave creams, a head massage, a $1.50 price tag, and absolutely zero nicks or cuts.

Patan and Bodhnath: Both of these are tourist and guidebook staples, but they both served well at giving us a little more of a complete perspective on Kathmandu and the Kathmandu valley. Plus, Patan's Durbar (Palace) Square is more impressive (and better maintained) than Kathmandu's, and Bodhnath's Stupa is just completely impressive.

Chitwan Pramila's Dal Bhat: Simply the best. Twice a day for two weeks and we still looked forward to more.

Traditional Songs: This one is two fold. The first part contains the ones we learned from Pramila around the farm, in the bamboo tower and in car rides. The second part contains those (some overlapping) that we learned from Jhalak on the trek. While we could theoretically hum some of the melodies, the words are almost completely lost on us. If you can ignore the intro to this video, the rest of it is a pretty good example of one of our favorites.

Pokhara Asian Tea House: Cheap and delicious home cooked fare by the most cheerful guy in town. There are only about 10 seats in this back-alley corner so you have to arrive a little early, but it's well worth it.

Mardi Himal Trek: Spectacular. Enough said.

The Atmosphere: While the craziness of Kathmandu is intoxicating in small doses, Pokhara's more relaxed version of the same (with farm more natural beauty surrounding it) make for an easy place to spend a little longer.

And a few last observations... • A buyer's paradise for knockoff everything and anything: trekking gear by the truckload, guide books that look so real you can barely tell they're not and store names (Wal-Mart, a small shop that sells yak wool pashminas, Fedup Express cargo shipping, and M.C. Donald "Nepalese fast food").

• Mopeds and motorcycles: a helmet seemingly only for the driver but none of the 2-3 passengers.

• No diapers for the babies (that we saw), only fleece/terry-cloth lined pants that get washed out and thrown on the roof to dry.

• The rumored Indian head-wobble-of-agreement tends to be more a head tilt and shrug in Nepal. Yes? No? Unclear.

• Nepalese Smokers: prevalent, but somehow nowhere near as intrusive as their western counterparts.

• Some of the hardest working people (especially the women) we've ever seen.

• Where else can you find a village where the adults and children are all equally excited about playing on a giant swing?

Location:Bangkok, Thailand

Food Porn: Nepal

Speaking of food grown on the farm... I never would have guessed it but Nepal has turned out some amazingly delicious food - so much so that I think it deserves a little space of its own.

If what you think of is Dal Bhat (lentils and rice) for Nepali cuisine, then you'd be essentially right. What we were treated to on the farm, however, was dal bhat twice a day served nearly every time with fresh buffalo milk yogurt (curd), curried vegetables and often a pickled something or other. If you're me, it was all mixed in a pile with a fresh chili pepper. If you're Casey, it was mixed bit by bit. Anything twice a day every day has the potential to get a bit boring but Pramila is an amazing cook and changed it up just enough every time that even after two weeks I was still looking forward to it. Favorites include the aforementioned jungle spinach, whose stalk, pickled, was spectacular, and whose leaf made for the creamiest spinach I've ever had, as well as the yellow skinned cucumbers, which are much bigger and juicier than the small green ones we grew up with.

The days at the farm also always started off with tea. Sometimes it was fresh cut Lemongrass (fresh being exponentially more impressive than the Lemongrass tea at the tea shop I used to work at) but more often it was the national standard of masala dudh (milk) chiya. This most excellent mixture of milk, cardamom, cinnamon, tea, sugar and possibly a secret ingredient or two is almost as important as dal bhat for most Nepali and for good reason - it's ridiculously delicious.

Pre and post farm our options and explorations expanded a little to include some Tibetan fare which, with the thousands of Tibetan refugees that now call Nepal home, is fairly common. These include the millet beer previously mentioned, thukpa - a noodle soup along the lines of Vietnamese Pho, millet pancakes with honey, Tibetan milk tea with salt and butter (wow), and one of the more interesting bread items I've had on the entire trip. On the menu it just said Tibetan bread with jam/honey. When it arrived it was a little bigger around than a large bagel and looked sort of like a plain donut but without the hole in the middle. The reason it seemed so unique, though, is that its taste and texture put it somewhere between a donut, a soft pretzel and regular bread - not entirely new, but not quite like any one thing I've ever had. Throw in my soft spot for honey and it's a shoe-in for my best of list.

And finally (though I won't pretend that the above is all Nepal has to offer) there are those little curiosities and side snacks... • The sugar bowl on the table at a restaurant in Pokhara that had cardamom pods and cloves sitting in it for flavor. Amazing. • The "Winter Melon" tea in a can that we just couldn't resist sampling. It ended up tasting like either a popcorn or cotton candy Jelly Belly, though neither of us has had one recently enough to remember which it is. • The small fresh bunch bananas, about half the size or less of those in the States with a sweeter taste and small hard black seeds throughout. • The dried snack food of peanuts, crunch dried noodle type things and beaten rice. When I say beaten I really mean chewy flattened rice. We happened to spy a couple of girls making this one day; the rice laid out on a mat and the girl operating a long wooden arm like a seesaw with her foot that would drop the heavy opposite end down onto the rice. • Dasain's Tika Day Salad (our name, as Padam only called it salad, when we asked): a stunning combination of shaved dried dates, shaved coconut, chopped apples and bananas and a hint of sugar in fresh plain yogurt. We're thinking it would've also been delicious with a hint of cinnamon as well. • The recycled soda bottles, complete with date of manufacture. I had a Fanta while on the farm marked 1994 (the contents were definitely not that old, thankfully), though the below vintage Slice was unmarked. I guess I should actually say reused soda bottles instead of recycled, as they're all collected back, cleaned (I assume), and refilled until they kick the bucket.

Location:Paknajol Rd, Kathmandu, Nepal


This image above seems fitting. Imagine all of the wires in a tangle being filled with people in flip flops, bicycle taxis, small car taxis, random dogs, children, tourists and the occasional bus or truck (which seem monstrous in the face of the smaller transportation around you). At your sides are mostly old, somewhat crumbly brick and wood buildings, shops lining the bases, bursting with souvenirs, cloths, tea, spices, knock-off trekking gear, real trekking gear, fabric, kitchen tools, books, and more souvenirs. There was even a place solely selling phony brand labels by the roll, all of them lined up in the window and accompanied by a "no pictures please" sign. You have officially arrived near the Thamel district of Kathmandu with us. Welcome.

Our introduction was in the middle of the night, after a two and a half hour customs wait; it wasn't quite as wild as daytime since most everything closes down before midnight. Happily, a decent place near our hotel to catch some much needed dinner (our first of many dal bhat) was still open, as well as a bar which seemed to be hosting a Guns'n'Roses cover band that evening. We were probably asleep before our heads made contact with the pillow - spending a 17 hour overnight layover in Dubai International Airport Terminal 2 left us bleary, unrested and smelling like the samplers at the duty-free shop. Unfortunately, this also led to our overpaying for the night's stay at a touristy establishment that shall go unnamed; we transferred to a simpler, family-run place the next two nights and were really happy with the room, rate and garden out back. Word to the wise - when landing at night, book ahead or have enough food in your belly before saying yes to a place!

Exploration on foot was the theme for the next two days - on our own at first and then with Pramila, whose farm we would be staying on. Getting a sense of the pulse of anywhere seems to always start with meandering...which also helps us figure out the pedestrian and traffic norms, currency and pace.

With Pramila we walked to Kathmandu's Durbar Square, which is where the kings once ruled from (durbar means "palace") and is home to myriad old, traditional buildings. One of these is the Kumari Behal, or House of the Living Goddess, which, with finely carved wooden windows and an inner courtyard, is home to the present Kumari Devi.

A young girl is selected from a Newari gold and silversmith caste to be the living goddess and lives here with her family until puberty. The selection process is rigorous and ranges from 32 physical trait matches to horoscope alignments to being tested by terrifying masked dancers. Similar to the Dalai Lama, the final test requires her to choose the clothes worn by her predecessor. Upon retirement, she is paid a dowry and returns to mere mortal status. People gather in the courtyard each day and it is considered lucky if she comes to the window for a small while. Though parts of it are reminiscent of superstardom, a la Michael Jackson, we were strangely just right with our timing and allowed to be calmly gazed upon by her right after arriving. No pictures are permitted, but the odd sensation of it all will stay with us.

After this, we spent some time walking and resting on the steps of a nearby tower, absorbing the bustle of the square, mossy rooftops, little salesmen and a traffic safety show being set up nearby. For future reference, do not drive with four people on a motorbike, no laughing and looking backwards, no carrying 25ft long signs and no getting caught under a fiery bus. We have since witnessed all but the last rule broken.

Of course, we managed to sample some more delicious food within our first 36 hours in the country. A very small sweet lassi (yogurt drink) with coconut, golden raisins, and crushed cashews on top was one of the best (and cheapest, at 25 Nepali rupees or approximately 30 cents, USD) we have had yet. The aloo paneer dosas at the Pilgrim Cafe, in back of the bookshop, made up for the grumpiness of the man behind the book counter. While eating here, we met a lovely retired woman from New Caledonia who invited us to trek there with her. Finally, Tongba i.e. Tibetan MILLET BEER, though it tastes barely of beer and is more reminiscent of yeasty sake in the best way. Plus, it comes in a cool metal cup with metal straw that is pinched on the end so no pesky millet works its way up, and hot water is poured over the fermented grain until you say no more. Definitely a good winter time drink. It was enjoyed most at a hole in the wall Newari food place where we met some other long term travelers (on their second year long trip) that we saw on a bus in Istanbul. It seems food and meeting people/conversation are inseparable for us so far...and we like it that way.

Our 6am bus ride with Pramila, her two children (Dipika and Dependre) and Madelina (a volunteer teaching at the school in Chitwan) would bring us over bumps, through valleys, past terraced rice fields, and deeper into the (very much hotter) jungle lined Terai district, southwest of Kathmandu. The decorated (for safe travels on crazy roads) trucks and buses reminded me of Bolivia. We slept, smiled, bopped and peered at the hilltops and rivers the whole six hours. Next stop, Sitamai Farm.

Location:Kathmandu, Nepal