Wednesday, March 4, 2020

A Texan in Tibet - In-Country Customs & Travel Tips

"Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts." 
- Mark Twain

Let me preface this entry with the fact that I'm continuing to train, eat, hope, dream, and prepare for this trip as if the Coronavirus pandemic didn't exist, but I'm very aware that my dream (along with my soul) could be crushed anytime between now and my scheduled departure date. Acting on positive thoughts, I've been researching the details that any competent traveler needs to be aware of in order to get the most out of traveling abroad in Nepal and Tibet.

First and foremost: There's money!
The Nepalese Rupee (NPR) is Nepal’s currency and as of this typing, 1 US Dollar = about 113 NPR. With that in mind, here's what some common things cost in Nepal:

Cup of Chiya - 70 NPR / .60 cents
Cold Beer - 200 - 300 NPR / $1.50A

Simple Meal - 300 - 400 NPR / $3.50
Hotel Room - $8 to $150

Shopping & Haggling
Nepal is said to be very inexpensive, with prices fluctuating during the height of tourism season. This year’s season is on track to be decimated by the Coronavirus pandemic, so I suspect prices could be at their lowest since the SARS outbreak in 2003.  I suppose that's good for people like me, but I feel for the locals who rely on tourism to support their families.  I also wonder about the quality and/or hygiene shortcuts that might be taken in order to meet minimal margin needs.  The cruise industry is notorious for it, which is just one of many reasons I'll likely never sail on a cruse ship again.  I've read that many Everest climbers and trekkers buy their weather gear from the local bazaars because the locals can tailor whatever you want on the spot at a fraction of the cost, and then sew in whatever brand label you like.  If I were climbing Everest, I seriously doubt I would risk my lifesaving warmth over saving a few dollars.  I still have riding gear from my Outback crossing, but I may spring for some cold weather riding gloves at a local bazaar because mine were literally worn through during my 18-day crossing.  Piloting a motorcycle over 17,000 foot high mountain passes with frozen fingers and numb hands sounds about as appealing as it does safe. I'm not a patient shopper and I'm an even worse haggler. Haggling is apparently an expected part of life in Nepal markets as long as it's done with respect. I don't expect to buy much in country because I'll be on a tight budget and I'll have limited capacity to carry anything with me beyond necessities.

Apparently, there isn't a strong tipping culture in Nepal. Rounding payments up for taxi and rickshaw drivers is common and I've read that sometimes a 10% service charge is included on restaurant bills. I tend to be a generous tipper, so I might be taken for another sucker tourist over there. I just feel like that extra dollar will have more impact on the life of the person working in the service economy than on me.

Currency Exchange
Locations for exchanging money in Nepal are said to be plentiful, so I suppose the trick is to find the best rate.  The pain is accurately forecasting what local currency I'll need; how much in NPR versus Chinese Renminbi (RMB, the currency in Tibet).  I always feel like I get screwed on the exchange back to USD.  Whatever amounts in whatever currencies, I have read that I will have to exchange any NPR back to USD before leaving Nepal because it’s actually illegal to take their currency out of the country.  Also NPRs aren’t accepted or exchanged anywhere else. This fact makes me wonder how Pat Healy got hold of the coins he flashed in "Something About Mary".

Right-Handed Culture
In Nepal, the left hand is literally viewed as the poop hand and its purpose is solely reserved for wiping one's butt!  Apparently, the right hand should be dedicated to writing, eating, hand-shaking, and other polite, social functions.
Also, gifts and payments are to be handed-over with the right hand.  I’m ambidextrous, but I write and eat with my poop hand.  It will be a challenge to eat right-handed.  As if the Coronavirus weren't enough cause to keep an eye on people near me, now I'll be eagle-eyeing anyone serving my food to see which hand they use.

I'm used to taking my time sitting until my buns are numb on a nice western porcelain throne while reading a magazine or surfing the Internet and being stared at by three boxer dogs.  As such, squatting awkwardly over an unsavory hole in the ground with flies buzzing around it to take a dump might be a little a bit off-putting the first few times. But the reality is that squat toilets are common throughout that part of the world, and when in Rome... Besides, I've used a Squatty Potty and squatting really does make for a much nicer dump.  I can't imagine the expressions on my dogs' faces if they witnessed me executing a wide-legged standing dump.

Temple/Monastery Etiquette
Nepal is a deeply spiritual and religious country with centuries-old temples scattering the landscape and monks wandering everywhere. I find some of the customs related to temple respect interesting. For instance, temples are always navigated clockwise. That means I would have to walk around the temple again to get to something I might have left behind me. Shoes are considered the most degrading form of clothing (to me, that would be bras) and must be removed when entering temples or a local’s home. I've also read most temples don't allow photography. Walk to the right, lose the shoes, and keep the camera tucked away. Got it.
Despite the clear and crisp glacial streams flowing in the nearby mountains, the overall water quality in Nepal and particularly in Kathmandu isn’t the greatest. In fact, it sucks.  I suppose I can use it to shower, but the tap water there is said to be a funny color and it often stinks. I'm taking a Camelbak and a refillable water bottle and have read that clean bottled water is available everywhere. I would like to have one of those Grayle GeoPress bottles that can purify 24 ounces of water anywhere in the world in a few seconds, but I'm on a budget and the $90 cost of a GeoPress will buy a lot of bottled water.

Bring AC Power Adapters
I've researched this one closely and have learned that there are a variety of AC plugs used in Nepal and Tibet.  I've planned for the worst and picked up an adapter for any outlet I might encounter and I have a multi-outlet power strip that takes 220VAC power and has USB ports to share.

Don't Let Bacteria Die! 
This one sounds odd, but makes sense when fully understood.  Stomach bacteria that are important to human digestion quickly die at high altitude because of lack of oxygen.  Even acclimatizing three to five days ahead doesn't help because the bacteria will be dead by then.  These microflora can be restored by taking probiotics.

Carry Accommodation Information
Don't leave a hotel without its business card listing its phone number and address. 

Don't touch anyone on the head and don't show anyone the bottoms of the feet.  With the Coronavirus, this won't be a difficult rule to follow.

Avoid Yaks - No explanation needed.

Bring extra Passport Photos 
They are required to acquire a Visa at the airport, for trekking permits, and to purchase cell phone SIM cards.

Avoid Shady Dance Bars 
I avoid sunny dance bars.  In fact, I dance like a white guy and generally avoid bars altogether.

I'm sure there is much more to look out for, but encountering challenges and discovering ways to overcome them is all part of the adventure.  I'm not terribly bright, but I consider myself clever enough to get by and deal with adversity.  I just hope I'm actually allowed to take this trip and experience those challenges. 

Got tips?  Email me!