Friday, December 30, 2005
Two days ago I moved from Haunted, or is that Hunted, Hill House to Hotel Tibet, more expensive, but cozier and in the middle of town. The air is so dry up here (elevation 1800 meters, that's 5400 feet for us Yanks), I have to smear my body in coconut oil to keep my red skin from itching, but it's so cold, the coconut oil is always congealed into solid mass. I immerse the jar in hot water to melt the solid mass into liquid. But first, I have to get hot water, by going into the hallway, and flipping the main switch (why it can't just stay on is a mystery) for my "geezer." Then I go into the bathroom and turn on the wall "geezer" switch with its glowing red light, and watch NDTV for about 20 minutes while I wait.
Yesterday's headlines were all about the attack on Bangalore Institute of Science. A suspected Lashkar-E-Toiba affiliate group sent a lone gunman to lob a grenade and shoot up the main gate, killing one math professor and wounding 4 others. Now there are reports of bomb threats on New Year's Eve in Bangalore.
Looks like my New Year's Eve will be spent here in McLeod Ganj, doing shots of whiskey in hotlemon ginger(strictly under the table; we are back in India now so it's only a "beer bar." Places serving hard liquor are seedy "stag bars"). I'll be in good company with Tom, the insane Irishman; Toto, the insane private-school Indian; Gretel the British painter; Laura and Lauren (from NY and Missouri respectively) and HipHop Lobsang (exactly what he sounds like - a HipHop Tib).
New Year's Day will be 12 hours spent on the posh, 700Rs bus to Delhi, only because there are no more seats on the 400Rs bus. I'm going to tell the bus man that Tom is my husband so we can sit together. I hope Tom won't mind. Any two foreigners of opposite gender are usually assumed to be married, however unlikely it may seem. We'll arrive back in Majnu ka Tilla sometime on January 2nd AM. Then I catch a 3pm plane to Hyderabad, hopefully to meet up with my friend Madhullika who works for the local NDTV affiliate. Somehow, I will get to Amaravati, where the entire world, it seems, is converging for the Kalachakra initiation. Koshek, my stalwart friend from Madras, and I will be meeting there for the first time in 2.5 years.
How am I going to charge my camera and IRiver batteries while staying in the tent? Can I balance my devotional participation with journalistic impartiality? Will I succeed in maintaining a bodhisattva's outlook while sharing public baths with my fellow 100,000 campers? At least there will be little need for hot water, with highs around 85 F. in Andhra.
Stay tuned for more news as it happens.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Hi everyone, I am concentrating on getting well and getting outta here, heading south to Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh where the Kalachakra preps are in full swing. So right now I will leave you with some relevant news and photos links and catch up here later. I need to do something besides type today (sigh). Wait, there is some crazy drunk-sounding Tibetan guy yelling in the doorway so I don't want to leave as long as he is there. Fortunately I am way in the back of the net shop.
Okay, here are the links. By the time this is finished the crazy guy should be gone.
:Photo gallery of Kalachakra festival preparations, from Andhra Cafe
:Reported attempt on His Holiness'life "nothing new"; from Phayul
:Dalai Lama set to take Kalachakra for world peace to new heights, from Business Standard
Monday, December 26, 2005
...just like the ones I knew in Kathmandu....
Feeling slightly less crappy now that I am hopped up on a combination of aspirin, coffee, ginger tea and ayurvedic cough syrup. A blot of Tiger Balm under each nostril ensures I can breathe. Paracetamol kills some of the pain of having what feels like 2 golf balls in my throat.
As I sat in the hillside Takhyil Peace Cafe ("we boycott all products made in China") I saw a near-continual stream of dressed-up Tibetans. They were mostly older folks all in their traditional finery, with those off shoulder fuzzy robes and braided tassles in their hair. Some even were wearing the special headdress with chunks of silver and coral. One girl's head was so covered in nobs of amber and coral she looked like a pincushion from Mars. They were all carrying 8x12 manila envelopes. I could see by the way they carried them that the envelopes contained something precious.
A young Tibetan man at the table next to me asked me what the word 'Boycott" meant. "It means Do Not Buy," I explained. I took that opportunity to ask him (through my croaking, raspy non-voice) where all the dressed-up people were coming from. They were new arrivals from Tibet, he said; all new arrivals get an audience with His Holiness and are given 8x10s of The Buddha Avalokiteshvara and of His Holiness. I felt somewhat cheated that I had missed such a ceremony; even to photograph all the dressed-up people exiting the Tsulagkhang clutching their packets would have been great. Of course, I have an excuse - I am sleeping off laryngitis and what feels increasingly like strep throat. Stirling says it's the Full Himalayan Flu. Maybe Toto (an Indian nickname) will make me another hot toddy using his 100 Pipers whiskey. His family has military connections so he always gets the good, imported stuff.
The Gu-Chu-Sum (former Tibetan political prisoners') program needs English speaking conversational partners. They get together every day but Sunday at the LungTa Cafe at 6.30, just to chat with native speakers and help the program members learn better English. I would love to do this - as soon as I get my voice back. Don't think I'd be much help right now.
I couldn't speak at all at last night's impromptu Christmas pissup at McLlo's, so I got to overhear an amazing story. This young man at the holiday gathering had just spent a month in Tuva and Mongolia learning Tuvan throat-singing and living with a herding family in outer Mongolia. He even got to meet Ondar, who is like the Tuvan Mick Jagger, and Huun Huur Tu, who are like the Tuvan Rolling Stones. I have 2 Huun Huur Tu albums myself so this excited me tremendously.
Their village was 2 days' drive from the nearest town, which was a three hour flight from the nearest city. They all lived in the yurt and he helped with the herding, riding horseback every day. That part sounded awesome. What wasn't so awesome was the food - he said it's mostly sheep fat, and they would make sure to save the most prized part of the sheep - the upper butt back - just for him. He had to scrape the sheep lard off the roof of his mouth with his index finger after every meal. The good part, he said, was that he got so frustrated with the situation that he would run off to a hilltop and write in his diary every day. He wrote an entire diary in 2 weeks.
Ginger-lemon-honey in hot water has got to be the best drink in the world. For everything. So why can't you get it in America?
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Looks like it is Ayurvedic cough syrup, hot toddies and cable TV for me tonight.
Thanks for the email thoughts and hope you all are doing better than I.
Have a great holiday,
Saturday, December 24, 2005
1. Hearing "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" played on sitar as department store muzak (true story)
2. Seeing the locals bundle up in scarves, mufflers and woolen shawls when the temperature plummets to 65 Farenheit
3. Leftover Diwali fireworks can be recycled as Christmas crackers
4. Helping Hindu friends dress their kids as angels and elves for holiday costume parties (this actually happened to me in 2002 at Madras Gymkhana Club)
5. No danger of being force-fed fruitcake.
Friday, December 23, 2005
(Still no photos. We are not amused.)
My new room at the ominously named Hunted Hill House was unusually silent this morning, and not just because it's at the end of a dirt road. A quick check with the light switch showed the power was off. This meant I couldn't take a shower (it's an electric hot water heater - no showers in freezing weather with cold water, I've already got a sore throat and crusty nostrils). It's so cold I sleep fully clothed(t-shirt, blouse, 2 pairs of cotton pants, and toe-socks - those Asian socks with an articulated toe so you can wear them with sandals)under 2 heavy blankets and a sheet. The Tibetan habits of bathing rarely, if ever, and heavy clothing that's seldom changed began to make sense.
Actually, temperature-wise, it's nothing compared to the cold of the States at this time - but here there is nothing like a heater in any building, and structures are not properly insulated (that is to say, not at all). I rolled out of bed and pulled open the nylon curtains. The Dhauladhar mountaintops were hidden beneath dark navy-blue clouds. Rain? At this time of year? "Not possible madam."
Fortunately, most restaurants use butane stoves, so even though there's no electricity I could at least get a cup of tea. I zipped up my cheap fleece jacket and trudged up the hill. This steep rutted hill always seems muddy, despite the lack of rain, thanks to a troubling foul-smelling trickle that constantly runs down the center. In a week or so I expect it will be frozen; at least it won't smell anymore. Power was out everywhere, so I sat in the India House restaurant and began reading the local free community newsletter, Contact ("McLeod Ganj's religious diversity means an opportunity for peace and tolerance"). Two pots of tea later, still "no current."
I started the Kalachakra initiation book. There are two ways to participate in this teaching, as an interested observer or actual initiate. To be initiated into this teaching involves promising to think of other people first for the rest of your life (part of becoming a Bodhisattva). I wonder whether it's better to make such a promise with noble intent, and surely fail sometimes, or just be a bystander. The book said, "Technically, the correct term for this initiation is 'empowerment.'" I selfishly thought that all of McLeod could use some empowerment, electrically speaking.
When we finally became "empowered" three hours later at about 12.30, the servers were still down everywhere. Electricity, but no internet yet.
I decided to hurry back down the muddy hill and get a hot shower, maybe even a hair-washing, before the power disappeared again. I switched on the geyser (pronounced "geezer") and waited for the red light to appear, signalling the hot water's readiness. While waiting for the "geezer" I watched a TV show of folk dances from Assam state. This was followed by a news show in Hindi I couldn't follow, so I switched to Oprah(!) who was interviewing Kurt Russell about being a "cool dad" and grandfather for their Father's Day edition of the show. I guess there's a bit of a delay between these shows' original air date and the time they hit the air in India. Watching them talk about how much they loved their offspring, it reminded me of Amma's teaching that even the love of a parent for their child is selfish; they only love it because it's their own child. True love, she says, would be to love all children, everyone's children, equally.
The craggy peaks were now visible - with a dusting of snow. Those had been snow clouds, not rain. That's actually perfect; snow where I can see it, but not on the ground where I have to deal with it. (Besides, I haven't owned any shoes but sandals in 3 years.) So it's a snowy Himalayan Christmas for me, Stirling and her Tibetan friend at the St John's Carolling service tomorrow night. "Bring your own candles and show up early, the church fills up fast!" admonished the photocopied poster. "All faiths and creeds are welcome. Service conducted by Rev. Kunjamon," which I recognized as a Malayalee name. Maybe Shinu will teach me how to say "Merry Christmas and God Bless You" to him in Malayalam. It might bring a smile to the Rev's face, to hear his mother tongue from sunny Kerala in these frigid hills. If I'm going to be a Bodhisattva, I guess I have to think of these things.
Now the servers are back up and I'm typing here in Gu-Chu-Sum internet, a cybercafe run by the association of former Tibetan political prisoners. My fingers are freezing, and the sky is turning solid white. We may have snow on the ground here before the night is through. At least we're "empowered" again. I'd hate to miss the season finale of Desperate Housewives. I think the main characters represent the 7 deadly sins. Trouble is, there's only 5 of them. Some of them are so hateful they could comprise 2 sins in 1 persona. Actually, I'm pretty sure this season finale here in India is last season's season finale from America; so please, nobody ruin the suspense for me. That would truly not be bodhisattvic.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh
Dear Mom and Dad:
I just went to the McLeod Ganj post office to mail some cards to you. Email is nice but there's nothing like a letter or card you can actually hold in your hands. The post office is just a tiny grubby dimly lit room with rotary fans and Hindi bhajans (devotional hymns) playing on an old radio in the background. It was funny in this town full of Buddhists to hear the Hindu religious music I'm so familiar with from elsewhere in India. It's so dark in there I don't know how the 2 old guys actually see anything, maybe their jobs are so routine they just do them without actually looking. I sent one to you and one to Carter - total cost, about 35 cents (8 rupees per card).
The stamps feature the Indian painted crane. I asked for what they call "philatelic" stamps (special picture ones, some are magnificent) and they regretted they don't get them at this branch office. Stamps here are not lick and stick; you have to affix them on the card with a bit of rubber cement or paste, usually kept on the countertop in an old jar with a daubing stick. I glued them in place, trying to wipe the excess dry round the edges. The man behind the counter cheerfully placed them in a "go" batch, but I asked him (with a combination of English and sign language) to postmark them before my eyes. This is a standard precaution here; if you don't, the postal employees may peel off the yet-unmarked stamps, keep them for their own use, and your card will get thrown in the trash. Uncle obliged me and I then asked to see the postmarks. They were half in Hindi, half English, reading "Kangra Himachal" (the district, sort of like the county; and state). When I was younger I used to cherish any international mail that came through the office, running my fingers over the postmark, picturing the far-off place and exotic locale where it had been stamped and dreaming that someday I'd be there.
My friend seemed to think we got a great deal on the room, $5.60 a night for a toilet that doesn't flush, no carpet (extra freeze factor in this region) and no TV. Today I found a room with mountain view windows on 3 sides, bathroom that works w/24-hour hot water, room service, worn-out carpet and cable TV - not to mention a balcony where I can do yoga in the morning - for the same price, so I am shifting there tonight. It has full morning sun, which makes a big difference staying warm. There is no heat to speak of in most hotels, so it's direct solar heat in the day, heap on the double blankets and thermals at night. With all this talk of cold, I should mention that it's still about high 56 in the day, low around freezing - warmer than Tennessee. I'd like to get there before sunset (5.30 pm) so I need to run.
On Christmas Eve I may attend the Caroling service at the church of St John's in the Wilderness, an historic site with stained glass windows. McLeod Ganj was once a British administrative center and hill station, and the church is one vestige of those days.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
Here in McLeod Ganj, Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama's residence, views of the Dhauladhar mountain range are stunning, but no snow till January, it's said. Everyone is gearing up to head down south for the Kalachakra event. I am here trying to confirm my press pass for this mammoth Buddhist free-for-all (and trying to picture what it looks like when Tibetan and Western Buddhists come to rural south India to have a free-for-all). My filmmaker friend brought a letter from an Indian production company (who have never met me) stating that I am covering the event for them. Hopefully the office won't notice that I don't own a video camera. I expect this entire process to take about a week. At least it's a rather Christmasy atmosphere. There are giant drooping fir trees on the steep hillsides that just cry out to be laden with snowfall. The local people use burros to transport building materials up and down the narrow, somewhat rocky roads, and the burros wear sleigh bells that make a Christmas jingle.
Street life is a lively mix of tie-dyed dreadlocked backpackers, Tibetan monks and nuns in burgundy robes, elderly Tibetans in full traditional dress, the younger generation (both Tibetan and Indian) in skintight jeans and jackets, and the older generation of Himachal hill farmers driving donkey trains and carrying loads of firewood to their villages. Every once in a while you see what looks like a giant walking Triffid or the old English Green Man coming up the street; it's a local person carrying a backload full of green-leaved tree trimmings. It always reminds me of those scary moving trees in The Wizard of Oz. This has a threefold use - their cattle (cows and hardy longhaired mountain goats) eat the leaves for fodder; then the branches are used for firewood; and the cycle is completed with the animals' resultant dung being dried in the sun and used for fuel. In Bihar I passed enormous rows of dung packed neatly into cakes and drying near the railroad tracks (in Bihar, though, it was probably water buffalo and bullock dung).
Yesterday we had lunch with my friend Stirling, a fellow native Tennessean, who's been here working with the Tibetan refugee children since last May. She was a goldmine of information about the refugee situation here and the politics of visiting Tibet itself. Then we went to see the Tibetan museum in the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, and the Nechung Monastery, home of the Tibetan State Oracle. You'd be very lucky to catch an actual "performance," if that's the right term, of the oracle, the official advisor to the Dalai Lama, but it is possible. Stirling got to see one last week (it's on her blog, A Peaceful Adventure). If you're here long enough, or have a network of Tibetan friends, you might be invited to or clued in on one of his deliveries. The Dalai Lama consults him on various occasions (the reason for this is never publicly revealed).
The Oracle is an otherwise ordinary man who has inherited this position; he goes into deep trance at which time he is posessed by the spirit of Dorje Drakden (which means something like "Thunderbolt Dragon"), protector deity of Tibet, and gives advice on everything from politics to weather forecasts. Ordinary people can't udnerstand this, though; it's rendered in highly symbolic language and decoded by His Holiness and the advisors. Once the deity assumes posession, the attendants tie on an enormous helmet with a strangling knot beneath his chin; it's so heavy and tight there's no way he could wear it if he were not in a trance. Once the deity "leaves" the man's body, attendants rush to untie the knot quickly as without the spirit's aid, the knot and weight of the helmet would certainly choke him. You can visit the monastery itself (sans performing oracle) at any time.
Amod, my LA-Mumbai filmmaker friend, and I had dinner with a 19 year old Tibetan boy who had escaped across the mountains just 3 years ago. At that time, he lived in remote Amdo, a northeastern province of Tibet, where his family are still nomadic yak and sheep herders. Their entire lifestyle depends upon the yaks, and they are nomadic throughout the warmer herding season. In winter they shift to a small town and live indoors, sheltering the cattle in the harsh weather. At that time (when the family are in a fixed location) Gedun Gyatso is able to phone them.
This kid has an amazing story. Three years ago, he was herding yaks and learning Chinese propaganda in Mandarin medium in the schools there (they teach, of course, that Tibet has always been a part of China). He had no awareness of his own Tibetan identity or their political reality till he escaped. Now, he's in Dharmsala playing in local guitar jams, listening to Bob Marley, speaking excellent English he's learned in the local school, and doing email. Though he is 19, Gedun Gyatso is still in 9th standard because he was so far behind the local learning curve. However, if he works hard, he can leapfrog ahead a few years. His goal is to perfect his English and Hindi, and serve as an English-Tibetan-Hindi translator here in India.
Time to go drink milky chai at the Sunrise roadside stand. Maybe I'll run into "T," a 54-year-old truck driver from Yorkshire who ran away from home at age 14 and has been travelling the world ever since. He's been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for decades, that's how he taught himself to read and write. T lived here in McLeod for 14 years, started a business, successfully sponsored several Tibetan kids and got them on their feet, and was engaged to an Indian woman. But recently the immigration laws have changed and he's no longer able to get a long-stay visa. Now he's having to face his own enforced exile, in this case, back in his original country. He said,"forty years, forty years I've been travelling."
"Just like Moses - forty years wandering in the wilderness," I quipped.
T looked stunned. "Wow. I had never thought of that before."
Saturday, December 17, 2005
Today, I am typing on an ancient, sticky and dirt-encrusted keyboard. I am waiting for the one terminal that is able to transfer digital photos to free up. Currently it's occupied by an elderly Tibetan monk typing at medieval rate so I think it will take a while. Actually it's quite cute. He leaned over a few minutes ago and asked for spelling assistance. He was trying to type the word "safely." "I am glad Budha has arrive safely." I reached over his shoulder to type for him and he was very grateful.
Now (one hour later) the terminal is free, but the shy young assistant (who is here from 7.30 am till about 11pm) can't get the drive to work at all. I've yet to be able to blog properly or upload photos since my return to India on Wednesday, due to crawling connections and non-working disk drives. Ah, back in India, where everything is possible, but nothing is easy.
It reminds me of the tailor who "fixed" the zipper on my backpack 3 times (three!) and each time it broke again with 24 hours. The second time, I began to get impatient and demanded he give me a good zipper. "But this good zipper," he kept insisting. "Good zipper, but techi-nickell problem." Well, that makes it a BAD ZIPPER! I kept trying to reason with him. The more I kept up with this line of reasoning, the more firmly he insisted that it was a GOOD zipper - somehow in his mind, the fact that it did not work, at all, did not inhibit its being an inherently good zipper. He also didn't understand why I would not give him additional money for fixing the broken zipper he had sold me to begin with. He wanted more money each time he repaired his own crummy zipper. The fourth time he repeated "just techi-nickell problem," without fixing it, I had to restain myself from throwing it across his tiny shop.
Perhaps I am being too harsh. Maybe it really was a good zipper at heart, but just needed three or four times repairing to see the error of its ways. Tomorrow I have to find a place with a working disk drive.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
A Bath By Any Other Name...
Ahhhh....that is the sound of me taking a hot shower after 26 hours on a train, after 18 hours in Raxaul, Bihar border; after 1 hour on a bus, after 2 hours on a different bus to see the Buddha Boy, after 1 hour on a bus to his village, after a very turbulent 30 minute plane ride over jagged mountains in a toy 20-seater to get to the nearest airport to his village, after a thrilling half-hour taxi ride to the airport just in time to be told the plane was delayed by 1.5 hours.
And, as you can see, I'm a bit behind on emails....
You have 1603 unread messages:
But I must say it's very comforting to arrive to a mailbox full of friends.
The foreign traveler's ghetto in Delhi is Paharganj, where some of the October 29 bombs exploded, which indicated to many people intention to target foreigners. Upon arrival at the Delhi station I opened the local paper to see there had been recent threats on the American Center and the US Embassy and that these locations were given extra security. This made it seem prudent to choose lodging elsewhere, so I came to theTibetan colony of Majnu Ka Tilla - not centrally located, about 30Rs rickshaw ride from Old Delhi station, but it's very peaceful and clean, a sound choice. The hotel Wongdhen House is extremely well-maintained; for $4.50 a night I get a room with an adjoining terrace and view of the Yamuna River (this is the river that runs past the Taj Mahal - although at this time of year, it's sadly reduced to a rivulet). Tonight will be primarily resting, eating, catching up on email. reading the Dalai Lama's autobiography as well as Taking the Kalachakra Initiation by Alexander Berzin, a little background research on the Andhra event in January.
The trip to see Buddha Boy was awesome, more for the process involved in getting there than the actual viewing (about 3 minutes), but I'm glad I went. As so often happens to foreigners here, just by my arrival in the tiny whistle-stop village, I became an attraction myself, momentarily rivalling the meditating saint.Right now, it is time for veg momos (Tibetan steamed dumpling) and tea. More later here! and hopefully in personal email.
Monday, December 12, 2005
Battling a case of recurrent Giardia and ever more recurrent procrastination, your correspondent heads south today for the "Buddha Boy" and Bara district, then the Indian border town of Raxaul, Bihar state, where I will - eventually - catch a train to New Delhi. I've done lots of scary things on this trip, but the reports of Delhi touts still frighten me. There's nothing like the smell of an Indian railway station - believe me, that's a good thing, and one thing I will not miss if India continues to modernize. But I love the big, lumbering, lived-in (literally) Indian Rail system. People, including myself, complain, it still does an amazing job moving millions of people a day.
I awoke early, breath fogging the air like a dragon, to kick around the streets with my new Sony T-17 camera. It's funny what people object to having photographed. A butcher had the entire torso of a goat (I think - hard to tell when it's completely skinned and headless) lying on its back, spreadeagled on a formica-topped table. The carcass was surrounded by various other chops of meat. I did get a few quick snaps before he motioned "no." Hey, you're gonna expose a headless, dead goat's genitals on the public road, and then act all modest?
Then I went to Mitho Cafe in Chhetrapati and had my first-ever authentic Nepali breakfast (a contradiction in terms since Nepalis don't really eat breakfast; I think they invented this for tourists like me who want to be "authentic"). "Ground maize powder with chickpea, soy and curd" turned out to be ground maize, chickpea and soy powder - that is, all dry powder, nothing but a bowl of sawdust - and an accompanying bowl of yogurt that you mix together to make a paste. Surprisingly tasty. The restaurant boys were so excited that I wanted to eat Nepali breakfast. They all enthused about going to see the Buddha Boy and said there were rumours that the King would visit the meditator sometime in the next few weeks. They also showed me a newspaper clipping that revealed (for the first time I had seen) the actual village I need to head for.
Kunda Dixit did a brilliant column this week about Nepal winning the "Conde Nasty Traveller Awards" in the coveted categories of "Place most difficult to get into" and "most difficult to get out of." I would have to agree. The road conditions, grounded airlines and nonexistent railways certainly go a long way toward preserving the Shangri-La mystique. Well, at least it's not in much danger of ruining the natural beauty. Some maintain that Nepal is under threat of invasion from China; having seen the map, my question is "How?" There's only one road that an army could even move down, the Kodari "Friendship" highway (just ask the Tibetans about having "friendship" with China). Personally I think they're going to pull an East India Company move, like the British did in India, and establish "business relations" first.
Currently I'm involved in a back-and-forth with my friend and fellow blogger Shinu about the fate of India, a huge question for anyone to even address. If sometimes my words sound too critical of India, all I ask is that people look at my photos. I think the photos show my real affection for the place and concern for the people; hopefully without overly romanticizing them.
Friday, December 09, 2005
It's tempting to circumvent the tedious and often dangerous 10-hour bus ride to the 15-hour train ride to Delhi (total cost: about $20) by taking a 1-hour flight for just $80 - on Bhutan's only airline, Druk Air. Even more tempting to my crazed sensibilities is the idea of seeing Buddha Boy, the 16-year-old who was meditating and fasting for supposedly seven months in the jungles of southern Nepal. I have no illusions of seeing a halo around his head or even getting close enough to get a very good photo (thanks to his overzealous managers - uh, I mean devotees). But I just can't resist a pilgrimage to an obscure place to see freaky socio-religious phenomena.
However, I could be halfway to Delhi, on the train, even, in the time it takes to reach Bada district.
"Bada district? Not possible," said Bishnu, the good-natured, open-faced young Nepali Hindu man who runs Youth Travels, one room with faux wood-panelling, a phone, a desk and battered posters of Mount Everest Scotch-taped to the wall. His desk was surrounded by squat stools that look like those used for milking cows. In the West, this would be the reception area of a travel agency. Here, it's the entire operation. I plopped down on a milking stool and gazed up at the Nepali map in hope of finding some way around this verdict.
"Not possible! No, it's not possible that it's not possible. I have to go there. I must go there. "
"Well it is possible," he amended, "but it will take time. Some time, maybe ten, twelve hours on public bus. No taxi, no tourist bus. Only some big trucks are going that road." On a normal day, it takes nine hours on a bus to reach the border from Kathmandu. I was looking at a three-hour additional detour. "Actually," Bishnu beamed, leaning back in his chair and adjusting his leather jacket, "I am having lot of tourists ask to go there now. Today, two Korean, and one...well, two Korean, and you."
The jungles of Bada, newly populated by souvenir sellers and tea stands for the tourists, suddenly seemed more attractive than ever in their unattainability. Never mind that not even one report of the dozen I've read ever bothered to mention which town it's in in all of Bada district, the southernmost county of Nepal right on the Indian border. I guessed that a good place to start would be Kalaiya, the "capital." At the very least, there might be more English speakers there, and certainly more buses and taxis available.
"Look at the map!" I cried. There's a road, an actual road, running directly from Kathmandu to Kalaiya, making as near a straight line as ever happens on a road or what passes for one in Nepal. "What about that? Can't I just hire a car? It should take 5 hours max!"
"Yes, but this road not possible. This road very danger. Lot of problem is there, you must take this route." Bishnu rose and indicated a long, red oblong loop on the map, deviating far from the direct one, to the west through Bharatpur and finally southward through Chitwan. "You can take morning public bus" (at this point, visions of the 35 people killed in one day of Nepali road accidents last week flashed through my fevered mind) "and arrive there maybe 3, 4pm. You must spend one night there." It's dark by 5.30 these days - and remember, I don't even know exactly which town or village I'm visiting yet to see the Buddha Boy - I'm just showing up in the largest town and asking questions. In other words, once I get to the town, the fun is only starting.
The impossibility of it all began to appeal to my perverse side (admittedly difficult to distinguish from my other, equally twisted sides). A bona fide adventure - I mean, you can fly round Mount Everest now in 1.5 hours for $120, but this - this was really promising. Ten hours on a bus to the middle of nowhere. A day and half trying to find this freak, and then hopping a taxi to a bus to another bus to cross the border at Birgunj, Nepal to catch my train in Raxaul, Uttar Pradesh, India (described by no less than Lonely Planet as "one of the most god-forsaken places in the country").
THEN (pause to catch breath) a 20-hour train ride in 2nd class sleeper to Delhi!
Something really has to be done about all the new, superfast travel - before we know it Asia will be one giant express lane. I'm going to start a "slow travel" protest, in the spirit of the French and Italians who rebelled against the encroachment of fast food chains into their countries and responded with the "slow food" movement. At the very least, efforts should be made to preserve the bullock-cart. As long as there are bullock-carts, somewhere, Asia will still retain its basic character and traditions. Soon enough, I see a future in which the bullock-cart has gone the way of the horse and carriage or now, the hand-pulled rickshaw - a high-priced novelty ride in the country for foreign tourists, who are desperate to get away from the smog and rumble of the tractors and Tempos which replaced them.
Highway to Hell
The New York Times is running a series all about the new quadrilateral superhighway that's being built, largely by hand in Indian fashion, to connect major sectors of India. This project was begun by the previous government in one of their relentless attempts to make India just as boring and uniform as the rest of the world, in the name of progress and convenience. This writer predicts it will do exactly what the superhighways did in America - ruin small town life, increasingly homogenize the culture till you can't tell one freeway exit from another and everyone talks and dresses the same, then finally, destroy the train system, which has been the backbone of the nation since British times. At one time, you could take a train all across my country. Now it's all you can do to get anywhere by bus or train - it's either drive or fly.
So, Auntie's addvice (said in Indlish with emphasis on the first syllable) is: See India now while there's still something to see that can't be glimpsed at the local mall, or from your car window, anywhere in the West! While there are still people who don't look like the Backstreet Boys! The day is soon coming when vegetables and fruits won't be sold at all on the roadside, but in megamalls like Pune Central (see "New Indian Epidemic: Mall Rats"), and everyone will be wearing t-shirts and Dockers. At that point, you're better off watching Nat Geo.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Fair throughout the Kingdom.
Wed: High 68- Low 44
Fri: High 66 - Low 42
Sun: High 64 - Low 41
My enforced "Visa Sabbatical" departure date (December 13 - one is only allowed to stay in Nepal a total of five months of any calendar year, and I arrived in late July) looms like, well, some looming thing on my calendar and in my brain, clouding any clarity and ability to concentrate, a sort of preview of my return to India ("This is your brain. This is your brain in India.") Nepal has not ceased to amaze me with its comparatively greater space, personal and geographical. Foreigners are far more integrated into the Nepali culture and economy than they are in India, and people actually leave you alone here. If you like, you can socialize with the extremely warm, friendly yet dignified Nepalis; or live in as much privacy as you choose. This is rarely possible in India. There, it's all about the people - population is the overwhelming fact of Indian life. You have to deal with people whether you feel like it or not - and after the first ninety times you answer personal questions to total strangers, it becomes "not" more often than not.
The Nepali perception of climate seems quite different from that of India. It's the only place I've ever been in my life that has neither provisions for heat, nor cold. The hotel rooms, residences and restaurants usually have no fans, nor any form of heating. This, despite the fact that it's just as hot in April, May, June and so on here as it is in most of India (very), and gets very cold indeed after December.
Everywhere I lived in India (admittedly, I was mostly in the South, and never in a hill station) there were fans - vigorous electric ceiling fans that seemed on the verge of spinning off their axis (ax-es?) when put on "high" setting, which they usually were about half the year. I had never seen a fan rotate so furiously - at times I was afraid to sleep beneath them for fear the frenzied blades would actually come flying off. In contrast, fans, even in sultry summertime, are a real rarity here in Nepal. By August, I had discovered every restaurant that had even a single fan and made a point of eating there, my friend and I dashing to claim the lone table situated under the one pathetic fan, often a "swinging" tabletop model mounted on the wall at an angle. Sometimes I had to request the fan's activation. The employees and other customers didn't seem to mind stewing in the fetid torpor (so why did they have the thing if not to use it? Were they waiting for it to get hotter than a very humid 86 degrees?). In fact, they often seemed surprised that there was a fan. Oh, that strange machine, is that what that's for? okay....
Equally weird, men and women both walked around Kathmandu all summer visibly sweating in long sleeved shirts. The Nepali style of sari-blouse is a distinctive one with full-length sleeves, mandarin collar and cross-ties. This is not to mention the Tibetan women in their bulky chubas. Local architecture, as in India, does take the heat into account; most buildings are somewhat open - that is, they may have an enclosed lobby but often the stairs lead to open balconies (the only equivalent in the US is an old-fashioned Holiday Inn, with doors along the outdoor corridor) and a courtyard.
It was never cold enough in my Indian homes to warrant any kind of heating device, just hot water heaters for winter mornings in the posher places. Here in Nepal, where it gets to freezing with frost on the windows (if not snow) in the Valley - let alone higher elevations- there are no heating systems in any building, and hot water is even more of a luxury than in India. Okay, I'm just a spoiled westerner, but explain this - everyone's walking round now in jackets, shawls and even ski hats and balaclavas, and they still keep all the doors and windows open all day and night (!). Extra blankets are the only heating supplement. When I hear tell of the electrical bills here for an ordinary house, even without heat, it explains perhaps the fact that there is no heating to speak of. (But whatever happened to the woodburning stoves with chimneys that are common in the countryside?)
In the courtyards of most buildings, the watchman builds a small fire on the concrete, and idle employees huddle around, warming their hands. Can you imagine trying to do this in the States? they'd be shut down with some kind of fire violation immediately.
Though the days are increasingly short and growing gloomy here, the prospect of getting on a bus to Senauli - arguably one of the grimiest, dingiest places in all India - and then the train to Varanasi (say no more) after 5 months of shanthi Nepal is like having to leave an air-conditioned room for the pre-monsoon street in mid-May. Plunged into squalor, and often, besieged from every side. This is the real reason meditation developed in India - not because the people are so "spiritual" or advanced or anthing. Meditation was a last resort - it was the only way to get any kind of personal space, internally, because there is never any space externally.
Almost as inexplicable as no heat when it freezes, is the fact that suddenly, everyone wants to know what I am doing, where I am going and what my plans are, right now. For some reason, the plans of a semi-employed photojournalist seem of the utmost importance to an alarming number of people. The only other option is nobody giving a toss about me (nice British expression picked up from companions on the travel circuit) which is equally discomfiting.
Funny how when you are physically ill, you can't think of or do anything else - all your energy goes toward recuperating. If only, you think, I didn't have this cold/sore throat/giardia/infection/headache/toothache, I could accomplish something. Once you recover, however, you then have to deal with all the stuff in your head...which does not go away with plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids. You have to do something with it.
Foot Fetish: This is the fresh lower leg of a sacrificed buffalo, covered in blood and placed intentionally in the doorway of a shop in Bhaktapur. Though it's something we might do as a nasty prank, in Nepal it is auspicious and considered to both ward off evil spirits and bring good fortune to the shop.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
The days are getting short and darker here; it's gloomy and chill by 5.30. The tourists are half what they were 2 weeks before. Lodges up at Everest are shutting down for the season. It's very cold in the AM and after 4.30, though the days are still pleasant, like a perfect fall day. People kind of hustle through the streets in zipped-up jackets now, rather than strolling. The hoteliers and shop owners seem a bit depressed; "the season" is ending and they've seen all the business they're going to till March-April (the "second season"). It's too cold to do hand laundry or take a shower now till around noon.
My eyes are still burning with that about-to-get-a-cold feeling, and my muscles are strangely stiff. Maybe it's some weird mild allergy; or just the fact that I have not been anywhere with anything like a winter in 3 years. But it's far preferable to Indian heat and humdity any day - at least I feel alive. It does take some adjusting - in South India, sunrise and sunset are invariably at the same time every day, all year long, because of the proximity to the equator. I think. Somebody tell me if I'm wrong.
Nepalese bloggers, journalists defy media clampdown by king
After the Royal Takeover in Nepal, King Gyandendra censored the media, arrested journalists and cut communications. But tech-savvy journalists are using their blogs to get news out to the rest of the world.
Sunday, December 04, 2005
Let me count the ways....
1. Wiping your dripping hands after the restaurant "hand wash" (there is never a towel)
2. Covering your nose against diesel fumes, stench of urine and sewers, et al
3. Impromptu monsoon-season umbrella
4. Shade from blazing afternoon sun (the rest of the year)
5. Thin shawl against morning chill
6. Bath towel
7. Extra bedsheet, or use to cover the filthy pillowcase the hotel never changes
8. (when folded) Pillow on long bus or train ride
9. Head scarf for Sikh gurudwara, Muslim mosque or Parsi temple
10. Wrapping breakables inside your luggage
11. Instant Moghul princess costume (above)
12. Blindfold during terrifying bus ride (below)
13. Curtain in cheap hotel room
14. Change purse (small bills and even coins can be tied securely in one knotted corner)
15. Tourniquet for cobra bite
16. Wrap-around skirt/sarong / Beach coverup
17. Tea strainer
18. Kidnapping blindfold (useful in Bihar)
19. Balinese/Sri Lankan waist sash
20. Add your own here!
Saturday, December 03, 2005
Friday, December 02, 2005
Nashville, TN USA
I was going to write you this a few days before New Year's but got felled by the flu. Seems like everyone is passing the flu around but I was too busy with school to pick it up until after the holidays. Damn Procrastination!
Anyway I was thinking about you and all the fantastic/incredible pix for which you've sent links this past year---I've shamelessly downloaded all kinds of weird shrines, colored market stalls and outlandish costumes. It gives my computer some more international literacy, diluting boring WORD documents and the underlying operating system. But even more so I have marveled to numerous friends about your bravery, sense of adventure and (probable) amazing stubbornness to stick out there on the edge with little money and lots of ambition and a good deal of chutzpah. There isn't one of them who isn't amazed at the intensity of the life you've been leading. Nor isn't totally amused by your deadpan take on Hindu culture as seen through American eyes. I for one can't wait to read the book!!! PLEASE consider writing one whenever you return to Middle Earth.
So I wanted to send you my congratulations, energy from a couple chakras, and heartfelt well wishes for the upcoming year.
And to THANK you for the pix, totally wicked amusing thoughts and the role model to pitch students when they think all they will ever do in life is graduate, get married and work at a lot of routine, demanding jobs 'til they retire.
May Ganesha shove aside all the dumb things that would block your way.
Peace to you,
Thursday, December 01, 2005
A day of running back and forth to the Indian Embassy (a story in itself, but I got the Indian visa, and it's good to at least be legally able to leave the country in case the worst should happen) has left me really fried. There are extra Royal Army and police out patrolling as everyone expects....something to happen tomorrow (below), but no one seems to know exactly what. "Tomorrow we will see," is a common comment, with no further explanation. The Communist Party has called a mass demonstration and the UN Human Rights commissioner, among others, is determined to uphold their right to peaceful protest.
his vacation, conveniently taken during a crisis (sound familiar, fellow Americans?), wherein he toured various nations with whom Nepal has virtually no diplomatic links (Egypt, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Burundi - remember Burundi?) and, on his South Africa jaunt, got dissed by Nelson Mandela. Man, that's gotta hurt! This trip was referred to sarcastically in the local press as his "African safari."
The final leg of the trip, to Mauritius (remember Mauritius?) was cancelled at the last moment.
My email inbox contained the following cautionary letter:
Embassy of the United States of America
December 1, 2005
Important Security Information for American Citizens in Nepal
This warden's message is being issued to alert American citizens that the political parties (ed. note: over here, unlike the States, there are more than two! ironically, it doesn't matter because now the King runs everything!) have indicated that they plan to hold protests and/or mass demonstrations over the coming period. For example, demonstrations are planned for Friday, 2 December 2005 and may occur in a number of locations throughout the Kathmandu Valley.
This date also coincides with the return of the King and the expiration of the Maoist three-month cease-fire. During the coming months, American citizens should pay close attention to media reporting to stay informed about when these protests may occur. ...Given the nature, intensity and unpredictability of these disturbances, American citizens are urged to exercise special caution at this time, avoid road travel (a good idea - see "35 killed in road mishaps yesterday")and maintain a low profile. ...
American citizens are encouraged to refer to the Consular Information Sheet for Nepal and the current Travel Warning for Nepal (which hasn't been updated for six months) issued on June 24, 2005. ...In the event of a communications blackout, security information will be left at all of the major hotels in Kathmandu. (Ed. note: No names named - Major hotels, you know who you are!)from the Hindustan Times, Nov. 30th:
Nelson Mandela refuses to meet Nepal King
Links to news from Nepal:
The Kathmandu Post
The Himalayan Times
BBC South Asia
Indo-Asian News Service
South Asian Media Net
International Nepal Solidarity Network
Nepali Times (strangely unavailable)
The Rising Nepal (strangely unavailable)
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
You don't even have to go into a bar to hear these songs...over and over and over and over, in the same order every night. Singled out for derision will be the Full Moon bar, mostly because they are both directly across the street from my hotel, and directly above the cybercafe where I am typing this. I know it's 8pm when they start to play "Mustang Sally."
1. The Doors: "Roadhouse Blues"
2. Dire Straits: "Sultans of Swing"
3. Richie Valens: "La Bamba"
4. Pink Floyd: "Another Brick in the Wall"
5. Bob Marley/Eric Clapton: "I Shot the Sheriff"
Oh, and recorded music I wil never ever have to hear again: Sting's "Desert Rose," that Jack Johnson album, Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Californication," and anything by Tracey Chapman.
Tuesday, November 29, 2005
I woke up this morning to a familiar, gravelly voice on the BBC. It was Bill Clinton in Sri Lanka! Amazing, Bush is universally despised over here (meaning India, Nepal and Sri Lanka), but when Clinton appears on TV, people are magnetized. They cannot say enough about him, and gather round the TV reverentially. It's like he's still President. People in India even ask me, why can't we re-elect him?
The hot water from my shower made steam on the windows; it's now record cold in the Valley for this time of year. Asian plumbing has some interesting features, even in a "modern" hotel. Though there are hot and cold spigots, water only comes from the Hot side. For the first ten minutes (literally) it is ice cold. After gallons of wasted cold water, it becomes almost immediately scalding - far too hot to stand under. So I've taken to filling a 5-gallon bucket with the cold water. When the steaming water finally comes, I stand shivering at a distance, mix the hot shower water and dips of cold bucket water in a plastic mug, then pour the lukewarm result over my body. I'm one of the lucky ones to have any hot water at all; it's heated by solar panels. In the monsoon season when sun is scarce, this hotel has the luxury of an electric water-heater backup, but you must phone the desk and have them switch it on. Then it's a few minutes' wait for the "geyser" (pronounced "geezer") to kick in. Bathing is something that requires advance planning here.
Sorry, photos aren't uploading today. Heaven is a place where the cooks are Indian, the technicians are German, and the police are British. Hell is a place where the cooks are British, the technicians are Indian, and the police are German.
Downstairs in the lobby, the desk guy, doorman and waiters were shivering but smiling as always, observing the inexplicable Nepali custom of keeping all the windows and doors open despite the cold. After ordering spicey-sweet Nepali tea, I asked for a brief lesson on which was more appropriate word for cold - "Chiso" or "jaro"? "Ahilay, malai ajay jaro chha" roughly means "I'm very cold now!"
Newspapers were on the coffee table, so I checked the headlines. Radio Sagarmatha got a respite to broadcast till December 7 only, then there will be another hearing of some kind. Now the US (a couple days after the UK and EU made similar requests) is demanding that the King restore media freedom. How do we have room to talk - our own President considered bombing Al Jazeera! With news about CIA prisons emerging, we are increasingly losing our credibility (such as we had) as the voice of universal democracy.
The RNA claims Maoists have already broken the ceasefire by firing on an Army copter. Various politicos raise warning voices to the King to get with modernity or face oblivion and a lose-lose situation. Villagers who have walked for days toward the Valley, in order to participate in Friday's pro-democracy demonstration, are being turned back by the Royal Army roadblocks.
As a tourist here, it has become a familiar routine: any long-distance bus outside the Valley is stopped by RNAC in their blue camo, and all Nepalis, or people who look Nepali, are ordered off the bus while the soldiers come aboard with their rifles and poke around. We tourists, or those who look like tourists, stay seated. When the soldiers are satisfied, all the Nepalis can get back on board. I'm not criticising the Army - I actually do feel safer this way, they are doing their job and they are risking their lives every day - but I feel for the Nepalis. Why don't they just order us all off the bus? It only takes a few minutes, anyway. And if there's contraband found on the bus, I don't want to be sitting there. I think the Nepalis, to their credit, are trying to be very sensitive about involving the tourists in this conflict in any way.
The UN's Commissioner for Human Rights has been called in to monitor the people's right to peacefully demonstrate that day. Certain areas of Kathmandu have already been declared off-limits.
And on a lighter note, Buddha Boy is now being investigated by scientists and skeptics.
There are Nepali Communist-Maoists party websites, but I'm not providing any links to them...I don't want to be the next website (after BBC Nepal) to get shut down.
Desperate times call for....
It's an interesting time to be in Nepal. The Government (which, since Feb. 1, 2005, has meant the King) shut down another FM station yesterday, Radio Sagarmatha, for thinking about broadcasting a BBC interview with Maoist leader Prachanda. The station had already decided against airing it, but security forces came and seized their equipment anyway and arrested 5 journalists. The official BBC Nepali website was also shut down (still can't access it). Radio Sagarmatha has petitioned the Nepali Supreme Court for return of their broadcasting equipment.
The Maoists and the Seven-Party Alliance have come to an historic agreement (not on every point, but they're getting chummy). The Maoists' unilateral ceasefire, which everyone from the common people to the UK to the EU asked the King to reciprocate (he refused) ends on December 3rd; a major demonstration is planned for December 2. Tension is mounting as the new strange bedfellows wonder if they'll have to throw down with the King.
What will His Autocracy do next? It's hard for an outsider (or anyone) to assess the goings-on. Opinion on the street and in the press appears to be that the King is not planning to compromise, but attempting to consolidate his power. Rajendra Baid, the journalist who had been in Delhi on a hunger strike to the death demanding a return to democracy and media freedom, a few days ago called off the strike at behest of his colleagues. Former Nepali Student Union leader and outspoken democracy advocate Gagan Thapa is out of jail, for the moment.
The ceasefire, while it did take a bit of wind out of the royal sails (keeping peace? that's supposed to be my job), was welcomed, but was not exactly a complete stoppage of violence. There were plenty of reports that the Maoists (and teenagers with guns calling themselves Maoists) continued to abduct and "disappear" rural people including schoolchildren and their teachers; demand donations, and otherwise carry out their usual activities, as did the Army.
This blogger isn't taking any side or advocating anything at all; just commenting on the complexity of the situation. The average foreigner's experience here, after all, is not even the tip of the iceberg - just the maraschino cherry on the tip of the ice cream scoop atop the iceberg, or in this case, glacier.
In modern America, and even in Kathmandu city, it wouldn't mean quite so much just to shut down FM radio - newspapers and cable TV are everywhere. But when visiting villages on the outskirts of the Valley, one realizes the significance of the airwaves crackdown. Many of the villages do have electricity (evidenced by the unsightly wires in my photos), not to mention transistor sets. Radio programs -Nepali folk music or the occasional Bollywood hits- blared from many a cottage as people participated in the fall rice harvest, winnowing, threshing, pounding and sifting golden grains. Newspapers are available only by slogging all the way down the roadless hills on foot, into the nearest "town" with a high street and a shop. And the older, rural generation often doesn't even read Nepali. Literacy outside the cities is quite low. To censor radio is really to deny the villagers access to word from the outside world.
Is anyone else as hooked on Desperate Housewives as I am?
Never thought I'd have anything in common with Laura Bush. It's equal parts American Beauty and Twin Peaks, the Danny Elfman score adds brilliant tension, and I love the narrative voiceover, done by the ghost of the dead neighbor who pulled a Hemingway in the pilot. But I personally can't believe that even a stupid materialistic bitch like Gabrielle would stay with a beastly, abusive pig like Carlos....
This just in....
Radio Sagarmatha has resumed transmission following the favourable Supreme Court order.
Do you think I can fit any more links in this post??
Monday, November 28, 2005
Lucknow, November 27: Moving to a loftier plane than Inspector General of Police D.K. Panda - who annointed himself Krishna's 'Doosri Radha' - a senior official claims divine status and a direct telephone line to Lord Shiva.
Singh claimed to have established 'direct contact' with Lord Shiva with whom he 'converses on the phone every day'. As a result, his phone bill reads more than Rs 25,000, well beyond the entitled limit of Rs 2,500.
Sunday, November 27, 2005
My mind was so restless, awash in a sea of seemingly endless destinations (
In the hotel lobby, all was silent. The TV that usually plays Hindi movies wore a dark glassy face for once. I heard the watchman snoring under a blanket on the sofa and noticed another employee slumped in a plush chair in the corner. Many of these folks work a 14-hour shift and I figure their snooze was well-deserved. I slipped out the front gate surreptitiously, knowing in their paternal fashion they would be alarmed (Didi? You go out so early?) if they saw me leave.
Before all the yuppies and hippies and trekkies come out in their North Face gear and expensive leather hiking boots, before all the wooden flute and Tiger Balm hawkers appear, the streets still belong to working Nepali people, wearing flip flops (yes, plastic flip flops). You barely see these people once the day gets underway, but they are the underpaid underpinnings of the tourist district. Old Kathmandu's streets are really glorified alleyways, originally made for oxcarts and bicycles, now pushed beyond capacity by mini taxis, motorcycles, scooters, an occasional absurd full-sized car or van full of tourists, riotously painted cycle rickshaws and, of course, the pedestrian crowds and accompanying hawkers that shadow them carrying prayer beads, Tiger Balm and all manner of junk. But now it's still dark, a crescent moon floating serenely over the buildings. Soon the sun will rise to reveal a cluttered canyon of neon signs (Trekking! Safari! Ayurvedic massage! Pizza! Real Nepali daal bhaat! Tequila bar with dance! Deluxe room with TV for normal price! Le Bistro, best food...)
It is chilly in the AM now, but not yet cold enough to see your breath. A woman squats huddled over a kerosene stove (you know, the kind that are impossible to light) on the corner in front of all the closed metal shop gates. She's making tea in tiny glasses for all the men squatted on the pavement around her. In a couple hours these shops will open and sell elegant cashmere and raw silk scarves to the tourists. All the Nepali ladies scurry by swathed in woollen shawls, which gives them an added dignity they didn't have this July, sweating in warmer weather. A small army of industrious ladies, the tallest of them standing about five feet, sweep dust and bits of trash from in front of each shop into the edge of the gutter, bent over those inexplicable handle-less brooms that are just bits of straw tied together. (They will not straighten up and use a handle broom, which could save their spines. If you give them a push broom they don't know what to do with it. No mops either - rags are used to clean floors while squatting. Some people say this makes them more flexible, but I see an awful lot of old folks bent over at a 90 degree angle, presumably from a lifetime of this. They also have a tradition of carrying things on their backs strapped to their heads here using the baskets called Dhokus. I've never seen this method once in all of
A family of ragpickers processed down the street, led by a toddler in traditional Nepali clothing who proudly marched in front of them carrying a stick like a parade leader's baton, waving it as though conducting a band. You could almost hear the military music playing in his little head. He was followed by a brother and his mum (grandmum?) who carried strapped to her back a load of flattened cardboard boxes. Another group of ragpickers, or should I say recyclers, sorted thoroughly and thoughtfully through the trash that had been swept into the gutter (these "recycling" groups always seem to be single women with their kids). Unsoiled cardboard boxes, glass and plastic bottles were retrieved and dropped into the mother's plastic gunny sack. I noticed they seemed to be in a bit of a hurry, then saw at a distance down the block the "real" garbage man. He pushed a bicycle with a large metal box attached to the back, and scooped up the garbage using 2 matching pieces of metal the size of license plates, then dumped it scoop by scoop into his bike bin. The family were on a deadline - they had to beat the Sanitation Dept. to the pickin's.
Scruffy, scabby but friendly street dogs nosed through the flotsam and jetsam alongside their human counterparts, one ragpicker toddler ate a bit of food he'd found, then offered it to his canine pal who sniffed it, then turned away disinterested. The moon had disappeared behind a sign advertising "chilled beer and Mexican food."
Bicycle bells chimed as men wearing the traditional Topi hat cycled past to deliver milk, in plastic packets, out of plastic boxes strapped with bungee cords to the rear fenders of their bikes. Sometimes you still see the tall, metal milk cannisters swinging from handlebars. Newspapers are delivered to subscribing shops the same way (folded into plastic bags, then strapped to the bike back).
I saw my favorite waiter Hari from Northfield Cafe showing up to work (), shivering in his thin fake designer jacket against the cold but with an unfailing, and what seems like a sincere, smile. He has wire-rimmed glasses, delicate features and the demeanor of a college boy. I wonder how many of the elder men doing the same job here began that way years ago, and were just never able to move onward and upward. To work for the international crowd in Thamel is still considered one of the best of the unskilled or semi-skilled jobs; after all, they are getting cash tips, and, hopefully, making influential friends.
In a couple hours, the street would be awash in the sounds of "hip" folk and rock music (and the occasional Tibetan chant) blaring from the music shops for the benefit of the foreign visitors. For now, it was nice to sip scalding sugary tea and hear only the roar of the kerosene flames, the swoosh of the straw brooms, the ching of the bike bells, and the mom scolding her kid for playing in a bit of garbage deemed too dirty for even a ragpicker.
I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was one of the filthy-faced urchins, who just moments ago had been cavorting with the street dogs. "Palease." Cover blown; I'd been spotted. "Palease" - that was my cue, time to retreat upstairs to the haven of my gated community. The moments of relative relaxation were over for them too - now there were foreigners to interact with, to do business with; he could no longer be himself. He had a job to do, he was on the clock. Down the street, the music shop's metal gate rasped open and soon two cows were trotting down the street to a soundtrack of Tracey Chapman. Why can't I see this video on MTV?
And, the hits just keep on comin'!
"RenegadeBadger" on Lonely Planet's travel board posted a great Top 5 of Best Ways to Annoy your Fellow Travelers, beginning with the brilliant "Bring your acoustic guitar and your Tracey Chapman songbook." While I can't claim to better that, other items did spring to mind....
1-Insist on loudly and self-righteously pronouncing "NA MAHS STAY!" with both hands clasped to every brown person you see, including the maid who will be most bewildered. Don't forget the ostentatious bow.
2-Willfully mispronounce place names (ie, pron. Kerala as "kurr AL uh," rather than "KEDD uh luh," Chennai as "Shenneye" and so on), thereby guaranteeing no one will be able to understand where you want to go. Then get impatient and huffy when they don't understand your questions.
3-Complain about having to take your shoes off everywhere, and wear laceup shoes that make it particularly difficult.
4-Confuse "Hindi" (the language) with "Hindu" (the religion - ie, "are the people there Hindi?" "Do you speak Hindu?" --yes, I also speak Judaism and Buddhism). Refer to the people in Kerala as "Keralans" and their language as "Keralan" or 'Keralese" (it's Malayalee, the people, and Malayalam, the language). Better yet, ask the people in Tamil Nadu why they don't speak Hindi. (Or "Hindu.")
5. Hand things to local people (money, etc) to people using your left hand, then wonder why they look offended. Oh, and hold hands with your girl/boyfriend in public! Then wonder why they give you dirty looks and eye up your partner.
Saturday, November 26, 2005
Myself, I'm nestled safely here in the Cantonment of Kathmandu, insulated by Royal Guard and lots of barbed wire.