Monday, October 31, 2005

A Peaceful Birthday, Transport Strike, New Moon, Halloween, Samhain, Diwali, Eid-El-Fitr & Kali Puja

Sorry for the brevity of this update; just typing a few lines to thank you all for your emails, concern and birthday wishes. I am in the midst of a 3-day Kathmandu Valley rural walkabout, so email access is sporadic. Today was a wonderful, sunny fall day full of villagers harvesting rice and potatos, snowcapped distant Himalayan views, Buddhist and Hindu shrines and temples, a Tibetan monastery, dusty roads, terraced green fields, aching ankles and many, many glasses of scalding tea at roadside stands. The crisp fall weather means that even four hours of walking daily produces only a hint of sweat. (Why, oh why, did I spend so long in South India?) In response to the omnipresent "which country"?" questions, I had fun alternating answers of "USA," "New Zealand," "India," and "Canada." (New Zealand has a special status here because of the first Everest summiteer was a Kiwi, Sir Edmund Hillary.) However, things close very early here and I have yet to eat my rice-and-dal dinner so I must scram soon, or go to bed hungry (as I'm afraid more than a few Nepalis do).

Today had the added intrigue of receiving an email from the "Warden" of Kathmandu warning all American citizens that there was a political strike today, supposedly with the result of no public transportation and possible violence. As usual, the US government was erroneous and it was a peaceful day concluding with not one, but 2 public bus rides.

Thanks again to everyone for remembering me. In a few days there will be photos up here. Just catching my stop, back to Kathmandu to do laundry, download photos, catch up on mail and replenish for the next outing (probably Pokhara and the Jomsom trek). Halloween seems strangely redundant in a nation where bloody animal sacrifice is a daily occurence and all the temples have delightfully macabre skulls and skeleton decor. The plastic ghosts and jack o'lanterns in the local American-run restaurant literally pale in comparison.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Top 5 Reading List for Nepal

Actually, they're just the five books I happen to have read....

1. Dervla Murphy: The Waiting Land: A Spell in Nepal

2. Peter Matthiessen: The Snow Leopard

3. (Various, ed. by Rajendra Khadka) Traveler's Tales Nepal

4. Culture Shock: Nepal

5. Barbara J. Scot: The Violet Shyness of their Eyes: Notes from Nepal (okay, I haven't read this one yet, only excerpts but I love the title)

Monday, October 24, 2005

...But Foreign Aid Money Is Welcome. In Fact, it's 48% of Our GNP

This is what you see inside the Kumari Ghar, after paying 250 NRs (about $3.75) to enter Kathmandu Durbar Square. And here's what you see after paying 200 NRs to enter Patan Durbar Square:

Hey, if I'm not good enough to come inside, my money shouldn't be good enough for you either. Don't let my foreign "polluted" money soil your hands.

Patan: Faces and places on an autumn afternoon

Patan Durbar (Royal Palace) Square is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, representing the pinnacle of Newari art and architecture.

Considering how long their political situation has been unstable (forever - no kidding!), the Nepalis have a lot to be serious about. Their light-hearted nature is a constant pleasant surprise
This mom selling veggies got a bit shy when I wanted to snap her....

However, this young fishmonger (right) was a natural poser.

Processing the grain includes sifting it with a pannier and walking on it barefoot (above)

I like the inter-generational hanging out that's typical of Asia. These lovely fellows (right) had to be coaxed into the photo. They thought I only wanted to snap the carved wooden post. 

Friday, October 21, 2005

Top 5 Weird Shop Names in Kathmandu

Times of the Signs

1. Blown Vision Eye Care

2. Typical Nepali Kitchen

3. A Cute Little Shop On Freak Street

4. Brain Land Educational Institute

5. Thamel Sandwich Shop Art Gallery

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Neuroscientists snub Dalai Lama

New York Times[Wednesday, October 19, 2005 11:51]
The Dalai Lama, revered as a spiritual leader, is at the center of a scientific controversy.

The exiled leader of Tibet has been an enthusiastic collaborator in research on how the intense meditation practiced by Buddhist monks can train the brain to generate compassion and positive thoughts. He is scheduled to speak about the research next month in Washington, at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience.

But 544 brain researchers have signed a petition urging the society to cancel the lecture, because, according to the petition, "it will highlight a subject with largely unsubstantiated claims and compromised scientific rigor and objectivity."

Read the full story here

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Keep On Bloggin in the Free World

I disagree with what you said. Therefore, you should not exist

My ongoing dialogue with a Hindu activist (a doctor resident in the US), who is calling on Hindus to take action preventing the US release of the film Water by Deepa Mehta, reminds one of just how confused most laypersons are - in the US and elsewhere - about the relationship between free speech, defamation, libel, slander, ratings, censorship, boycott and the roles each of these play in democracy. If you don't like a film or book, and disagree with the way it depicts you or your people, boycott it, don't criminalize it. Next we'll have Hindu fatwas, like the Muslim call to assassinate Salman Rushdie for the sin of writing a novel.

I admit to not having seen the film, and I'm not necessarily defending its content. For all I know, it may be a fallacious misrepresentation of a culture, I don't know. But it is a feature film, not a newscast or even a documentary, and as such, is the cinematic equivalent of a novel. Its makers are entitled to artistic license and free expression, whether I like it or not. Further, a religion cannot be "defamed" in the legal sense - "defamation" applies only to individuals and corporate entities.

India claims to be the biggest democracy in the world. It may have the most people, for sure, but will never really be a democracy until 1) there is a uniform civil code(right now, various religious and ethnic groups have their own recognized legal systems. A Muslim can be legally polygamous, a Hindu cannot) and 2) the people understand the role media and representation in a democracy. Free expression is feeling a bit of a chilling effect there following the June bombing of Delhi cinemas that dared to show a feature film depicting Sikh characters in a way some Sikhs found objectionable.

India's traditional multiculturalism and tolerance of difference is the only reason minority religions can flourish there as they have. It is the mark of a strong, durable culture - or nation - to be able to tolerate and incorporate dissenting voices. With all the talk of defending Indian tradition, that, perhaps, is the greatest Indian tradition of all.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Local colour

Picaresque, picayune multicultural vignettes

-How come when these old - or actually, any - Tibetan gets on the local (not long distance) pay phone, they have to YELL at the top of their lungs like they are hollering through a tin can attached to a piece of twine? (The internet cafes here all have public pay phones at the front desk. Unlike the States, it's just a normal phone with a minute-timer and they charge by the minute.) They should install the Green Acres phone at the top of the pole. The old Tibetan ladies in their chupas could climb up there and not disturb everyone else in the net place, who are already struggling with the sticky keyboards, slow connections and outdated software (Windows 98!).

-Do South Asians just have more spit and phlegm in their bodies than anyone else? They constantly make excoriating horking and throat-clearing, esophagous-scraping sounds, then spit the result inches away from your sandaled feet. How come no one else feels the need to do this? Even the Tibetans don't seem to be constantly doing the hoc-pitui like the Indians and Nepalese. Every morning at 4AM, it's like a uvular alarm clock, I lie in bed and listen to people expectorating lakes full of mucous. And I thought the rednecks and their tobacco chaw were bad in Tennesssee. The tradition is that it's purifying and cleansing to the body, but it has quite the opposite result for the immediate environment.

-Then again, I am living in a country where the recent solar eclipse (which wasn't even visible here) was declared a national holiday. Banks and government offices closed because it's considered so inauspicious to go out at that time, they probably couldn't have paid people enough to show up to work anyway. At least not without slaughtering a half-dozen extra goats before leaving the house. Not to mock these practices per se - at least they slaughter their own goats for consumption, unlike my country where we can purchase plastic-wrapped packages of denial at the supermarket.

If anyone would like to leave a COMMENT, I still can't succeed in getting ENABLE COMMENTS to work on this board. Just email me:

Next time: Getting Robbed in Kathmandu

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Top 5 Stupidest Questions....

Top 5 Stupidest Questions Ever Asked on Lonely Planet's
Thorn Tree India forum:
(and I am not making any of these up)

5. "Can you get a Starbucks Chai Latte in India?"

4. "Is is safe to be seen publicly reading a copy of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses"?

3. "What is the language spoken by the Babas and Sadhus of India?"
-According to my inlaws, it's Rupees.

--Yes, that's the language and the new mantra too!
---I think you are underestimating the sadhus.I am sure they are multi lingual and their dialects includes GBP, USD, JPY, DM etc.

2. "Would it be socially acceptable for me to listen to a Walkman with headphones on a train in India? I know the people are talkative and they might consider it anti-social...?"
-I'd like to see the Walkman or book that could stop an Indian from asking questions

and the number one....
1. "Is it true that in the Madras Zoo, you can see a Tamil Tiger?"
-Yes, they are readily identifiable by the blood on their hands.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Fault lines

The earth did not move

The post-quake concern from friends and family has almost become routine since the tsunami and the Mumbai floods. (In those two cases, though, I could make bad jokes about the "outpouring" of concern and "flood" of emails). Everyone can relax, there has been no significant earthquake in Nepal since 1934. However, supposedly there is one every 75 years here. I guess we have a few more years to go. We are nowhere near Kashmir, unless you are in Ohio, then Nepal and Kashmir are practically roomies, maybe even sharing a bunk bed. Nepal is sandwiched between China and India, but south of Kashmir. My friend in Dharamsala, North India actually felt the quake, and the papers said it registered somewhat here, but I didn't feel a thing except a twinge of jealousy that I didn't get to write a blog full of anecdotes about feeling the earth move.

Let me get a map so the gentle readers can brush up on their geography.
Indian Kashmir and Pakistani-controlled Kashmir are up in the "topknot" of the Indian territory. Nepal is southeast of that distinct part of the map. I think somewhere in there is Chinese-disputed-sometimes-Chinese-asserted-and-controlled-on-alternate-phases-of-the-moon

But who am I to preach to anyone? - I didn't even know where our neighbor
Bhutan really was. Nepal is flooded with Bhutanese refugees, and all this time I had thought Bhutan was somewhere to the West. Bhutan, for those not up on trends in South Asia, is still the mythical, sheltered kingdom that Nepal and Tibet used to be. At least that's what the Bhutanese travel agents say. However, Bhutan is a Buddhist kingdom rather than Hindu like Nepal, so their government offices are probably only closed 145 days of the year for religious festivals. I hear the king outlawed television in an attempt to keep their culture pure. No wonder all the Bhutanese monks come here - they're probably just looking for a place to see Baywatch.

Evidently the subcontinental landmass, which broke away from Africa some bejillion years ago, just keeps ramming into Asia like a persistent mountain goat at
the Himalayan fault line, at the rate of 5-6 millimeters per year. This pressure accrues till every so often all Hell breaks loose. In Tibetan Buddhism there are at least 18 different hells, so when the big one finally hits around here, it should be a doozy. (However, a large part of Vajrayana Buddhism involves identifying all these hells in excruciating detail, so the Buddhists will be well prepared. "Oh look, now we're in the one where you see your friends at the top of a beautiful hillside. You wave to them, so glad to see them, and begin running up the hill. Just then each blade of grass beneath your feet turns into a shard of glass, shredding your body to ribbons." I am not making this up-- it's in the Tibetan Buddhists' Comprehensive Field Guide to Hell, ed. by Robert Thurman, foward by HH the Dalai Lama. Okay, that last part I made up.)

Every map of this region has a standard disclaimer saying something like "these national boundaries are not officially confirmed and are subject to dispute," because there are ongoing border disputes between India and Pakistan, India and China, China and Pakistan, and so on. I suppose if a map were published without this tiny statement in the small-print margins, China might get all in a huff and sue the publisher for geographic libel, causing an international incident. It's kind of like, if the Hatfields and the McCoys had a love-hate triangle, with nuclear weaponry instead of muskets and moonshine. Maybe they should just play a giant cricket match and get it over with; of course, I would think that, because then India would win hands down. Or maybe they can take turns trying to whip one another at each other's national sport - for China it's ping-pong - oh, pardon me, "table tennis"; for India, something called
"kabbadi" (everyone knows the national sport is cricket, but no one can admit having a game of British origin as the "official" one) and for Pakistan, honour killings and beheading journalists.

What used to be Tibet is now euphemistically called "the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China." Nepal catches some criticism for not harbouring enough Tibetan refugees, or for giving those already here a hard time, but I think they are kowtowing to China not out of hatred of Tibetans. Rather, it's just to prevent waking up one day to find themselves newly dubbed the Nepalese Autonomous Region of China. That may be the first and last time I use the word "kowtow" in its original context.

That's all the kowtow from this cowtown for now.

Indian plate has become seismically active
Indian Express, October 11:
‘Close monitoring’ of faults neighbouring the one that ruptured under the Himalayas in the 7.6 magnitude earthquake is required as the Indian plate boundary has become seismically ‘very active’.

Exotic Himalayan Adventures, Mysticism, Tibetan Shamanic Spirituality and Film Festivals! - psyche


One week-plus into my blog and repeated attempts at audience participation - that is, ENABLE COMMENTS - still haven't worked. Nor has showing my Profile, or any number of other features. It can't be that hard to do; all the other computer non-lits have blogs (hell, if the Christian housewives can do wait, their husbands or sons probably did it for them.) - and things I post have a disconcerting way of appearing, then disappearing, sometimes reappearing. And Mercury's not even retrograde till November.

Also, unless I write about exotic Indian travel constantly, the Adsense runs boring stuff about How to Make Your Blog, etc. So here are a few words for our sponsors: Indian clothing, Indian costumes, Asian exotic apparel, exotic travel in India, Himalayan Adventures, Esoteric Mysticism and Independent Cinema!

New Indian Epidemic: Mall Rats

Back in July, I wrote a story about the new high-rise mall called Pune Central. Evidently this is an epidemic. Come to see what's left of traditional India before it becomes just another paved-over, air-conditioned country.

from BBC South Asia:
It is a make-believe world.
Once you are inside, you forget about the city's potholed roads, utterly rowdy traffic and in-your-face poverty.
Instead, Inorbit, the biggest shopping mall in India's commercial city Mumbai (Bombay), is buzzing with customers. Full story:

Monday, October 10, 2005

EU: Nepal at risk of collapse

Kathmandu, 9 October
BBC South Asia

Nepal has seen many political protests in recent months. A European Union delegation on a visit to Nepal says the country is in danger of political collapse.
EU delegation leader, Tom Phillips, said the failure of constitutional forces could lead to a breakdown of government institutions.
King Gyanendra seized direct power in February saying politicians had failed to tackle the insurgency by Maoists.
The EU team also accused the Maoists of continuing to recruit child soldiers despite calling a ceasefire last month.
Full story at

Sunday, October 09, 2005

God in the stones

Reprinted from Indian Express, Oct. 9 by Sudheendra Kulkarni

What struck me was that before the team began the day’s work, a woman performed a small puja on the stone, smeared it with the auspicious yellow and red powder, broke it with a ceremonial strike and then everybody went about their respective tasks. I asked the woman why she did it. In her own earthy Marathi, she replied, ‘‘This is not a mere stone for us. There is divinity in it. This stone feeds us. It also makes your cars run smoothly on the road.’’

full story at:

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Yo, lama

At the risk of sounding like a jerk, being a lama is not that big a deal. This realization becomes more clear after spending time in a Tibetan community. Anybody with a sponsor who can stay in school 12 years can be a lama - and for most Asians it seems to be second nature to stay in school, follow orders, don't ask questions, and get that piece of paper. Then you get the title "lama." (It would be a much bigger challenge for a Westerner.) They are walking the streets here, so they no longer seem exotic. I shared a taxi with one last night who kept hitting on me (and this one was a shaven monk in robes). Then there was the one who told me he wanted my body - and that was standing in front of the Maitreya statue in the lakhang of his monastery. Dharmsala is full of Tibetan guys hoping to get a foreign wife and a green card, trading on the Tibetan mystique the same way Indians did in the 60s and 70s.

My friend maintains that part of this (extracurricular monk behavior) is because so many monks are now Bhutanese and Nepalese, that the Tibetans are "different." Somehow, considering the more relaxed Tibetan attitudes toward sexuality, I doubt this. To be fair, I guess there are lamas and then there are Lamas. Also, definition of the word Lama seems to vary between the Buddhist schools. In some places anyone in robes is called Lama; in others only a current incarnation of a previously highly evolved soul gets this title.

Most of the Western Buddhists I meet here appear to be very miserable people. Is that what happens when you focus on Emptiness so much? I confess that I don't find it a terribly motivating concept. A great deal of the Baby Buddhists' motivation appears to be Being Part of Something Cool, particularly the younger ones who got involved once Tibetan Buddhism was already trendy. But they're just so gosh-darn cute and squeaky-clean "dharmic." I love the way they know nothing about Hinduism and the fact that Buddhism came from Hinduism (as much a shock to some of them as, say, telling most Christians that Jesus was actually a Jew.) They also assume an innate piousness on the part of ethnic Tibetans, who to me appear nothing if not terminally tough and practical.
News from the Landlocked Insurgency-Wracked Isolated
Middle Mountain Kingdom

Displaced not returning home for Dasain
DIPAYAL, Nepal, Oct 8: Displaced people living in the district HQ here have decided not to return to their villages for Dasain festival. They say that the villages are no longer safe even after the unilateral declaration of cease-fire by Maoists.
...They fear that the ceasefire may break down any time. However, they say that they would return to their villages if the government reciprocates the cease-fire.

"Maoist activities continue unabated in the villages. The government has not reciprocated their ceasefire declaration. We don't believe that we will be able to live safely in the villages, " said Khadga Bohara, one of the displaced.

Many of the displaced came to the district headquarters after Maoists beat them, looted their property and set fire to their houses.

Acording to district police office, 53 displaced families are living in the HQ. Many youth who left for India, fearing Maoist abuse, have also not returned to the villages. In previous years, the bus stand here used to bustle with youngsters returning home at this time of year. (Kathmandu Post)

And in a somewhat related story to the South:
PATNA, Bihar, Oct 8: Suspected Maoist rebels set off a land mine in eastern India on Saturday, klling seven policemen, a police official said.

(Kathmandu Post)

Women become judges in Kaski
KASKI, Oct 8: Women of Pumdibumdhi VDC have become judges of their own village, deciding all cases pertaining to domestic violence. Today all cases relating to domestic violence must first pass through the Women Judiciary Forum (WJF). It requires the forum's approval if the cases are to be referred to a higher court of appeal, or the police.

Baral (of WJF) said that after the women started vetting the cases, male members have become wary of females in the villages.... According to a study commissioned by the Habitat Research, Pumdibhumdi was notorious for th largest number of domestic violence cases in Kaski, followed by Sarangkot and Rupakot in the district. After the campaign by women, the situation has reversed.

full stories:

Friday, October 07, 2005

Namaste Not

Living full-time in Asia, one grows weary of newcomers' romantic ideas.

Where did this idea come from - that "Namaste" means "The god within me honours the god within you," or some other Orientalist, new age spin? This is an imputed meaning; there is nothing in the literal translation to indicated anythng other than this: I Bow To You. I maintain that this is a myth (about 'honouring the god') fostered by foreigners. Bowing is just a pan-Asian cultural norm, there is nothing especially spiritual about it. In fact, quite the opposite. I don't think *most* Hindus bow for any reason other than ingrained subordination.

Sanskrit is not a mysterious, ancient language but one I was taught as a conversational, modern one, as part of the Samskrita Bharati Sanskrit revival programme. In case you think I was instructed by secular humanists, my first teacher was a practicing Hindu and Indian nationalist. Namaste means "I bow to you" (I believe the Te ending makes it To You, I bow would be namaami) just like "janaami" means "I know."

Okay, everyone bowing is not doing so out of sheer fear. Great masters like Amma may bow for one reason, average people for another. But Amma doesn't bow to everyone and everything because she is Hindu, she bows because she is realized and sees God in everything and everyone. I think realized beings everywhere would do the same, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever.

The fact that they are Hindu has nothing to do with it, IMHO. The average Brahmin (unless he is some kind of liberal like Vivekananda) will never, ever bow to another Hindu of lower caste, and that goes for most castes on down (Kshatryia wouldn't bow to a Vaishya, etc). What happens, you may ask, if a Brahmin has a boss or superior of a lower caste? Conveniently, this doesn't happen very often (three guesses as to why?).

The average Indian, Hindu or otherwise, does not go around honouring the god in everyone and everything else. They live in fear of power, and the bowing is a reflection of that. If you want to call that respect, well, I have a different definition of respect. It may be respect, but it's not mutual.

It's funny to watch the doormen, waiters, and other servicepeople here greet guests with Namaste and a slight bow, and watch the foreigners return this. The foreigners don't understand that this is inappropriate. In fact, it lowers the workers' view of the foreigners. (what are they, stupid, bowing to a peon?) The workers are the workers, and don't expect this gesture to be returned - after all, we are not subservient to them. Their world is a strictly hierarchical one and we bewilder them by not knowing "our place." Nepalis and Indians never make this mistake. They just kind of slightly nod and keep doing, which is all that is expected of them. There is no mutual respect in Indian culture - it's all top down !

How much of this has to do with Hindu values, how much is just Indian culture, who knows? The fact is that most of the people doing this are Hindus by birth, and this is how they behave. If bowing to the god in everyone is in fact a Hindu value, they're not practicing it.

Watch they way people communicate. They don't have a dialogue. Superiors give orders and underlings follow. Parents tell their kids what to do and the kids do it. Husbands give orders and wives follow. The idea of honouring everyone equally is a Western one.

My observations about India and Hinduism come from living in India, practicing Hinduism and observing others doing the same. What's written in books, by either foreigners or Indian intellectuals, doesn't have much bearing on this (except as an amusing contrast sometimes!).

I think everyone coming from the West to study Hinduism should close their books and go observe behavior in temples, pujas, homes, markets and so forth. That is where Hinduism is practiced. Whether it's practiced correctly or not is another question.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Making Inroads

While waiting for the download, I'm gazing at a Nepalese road map posted on the cybercafe wall over my screen. Actually, it's one part road map, with topographic map inset in the upper right hand corner. The topo map looks like an angry schoolkid took an oblong strip of paper, crushed and crumpled it into a tiny ball, then unfolded it and ripped it ragged along the edges. Except for a tiny "blank" space of flatness along the bottom of the strip, it's nothing but hills and mountains.

The road map shows the extent to which geography really determines Nepali destiny. Outside of the Kathmandu Valley and lower Terai (the aforementioned narrow strip running along the southern border with India), there are literally no major roads. The thick red highway lines (using that term loosely; most are 2-laners) cover only this tiny portion of the map - probably less than one quarter of the country has anything like real roads. My lane in Boudha - and this is inside the city - resembles a washed-out riverbed, for good reason. It is a washed-out riverbed, as is abundantly evident when the rains start. The gravelly dirt "road" becomes a literal creek, shin-deep, in minutes.

There will never be roads in most of Nepal. Only the pinnacle of American highway engineering, employing extensive blasting and so on, could possibly make roadways through the terrain. Of course this is a blessing for us tourists; guaranteed to keep the valleys and mountains more pristine for us. Some areas of the country are so inaccessible, I wouldn't be surprised if heretofore unknown places were discovered. The beautiful, increasingly cool fal days are beckoning and I can't wait to hit a trail. Just hope my knee holds up; I feel positively antiquated whining about my trick knee. Lame, indeed.

Soldiers guilty, but free
Nepali Times, 30 Sept. 2005
On Tuesday, a court martial ruled that Col. Bobby Khatri, Capt. Sunil Adhikari and Capt. Amit Pun were direclty responsible for killing Maina Sunuwar after severely torturing her (Nepali Times #217). The girl was abducted on 17 Feb. 2004 by state security forces, which initially did not provide any information on her whereabouts or even admit they were holding her. The three officers received sentences of six months in jail and temproary suspension, but they are unlikely to serve any actual time, as they were found to have served their sentences by being consigned inthe barracks. The three were also ordered to pay some compensation to the family from their own pockets. According to Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, "This ruling allows officers convicted for torturing and murdering a 15-year-old girl to avoid serving even a single day in jail. This tells soldiers in the Nepali Army that they won't risk punishment if they continue to abuse civilians." Over the past two years, Nepal's security forces have been responsible for the largest number of reported disappearances in the world.

Things you take for granted over here

Kathmandu, Nepal

Bargaining and haggling for everything

Specifically asking for "English newspaper"

Having neighbors who look like stills from National Geographic

Dishonesty (about prices, availability, life stories, when the work will be finished, etc.) and corner-cutting

Wondering how you will pay the $65.00 rent

Channel-flipping from Nepali to Hindi to English to Tibetan within a few minutes' conversation

Monks with cell phones

Papayas, figs and pomegranates are not a luxury

A dozen Tibetan high lamas live within walking distance

Nobody has a license (for anything)

Never being cold

Being called "Didi" (big sister) in Nepal, "Chechi" or "Madama" in Kerala, "Akka" in Tamil Nadu, "Memsahib" in Calcutta, and either "Auntie" or "Madame" everywhere else

Prescription medicine without a prescription, or a doctor's visit

Prescription medicine that costs $50.00 in the US costing $2.00

Every commercial building has a full time watchman and doorman in uniform

Vegetarian food

Constantly carrying an umbrella (for sun most days, and rain during monsoon)

Sandals, 365 days a year

Routinely meeting people who've just returned from, or are headed, to places considered dangerous by most of the world (Afghanistan, Egypt, Jaffna/northern Sri Lanka, Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia, trekking in western Nepal, etc.)

No spring, no fall, no changing colours; just hot season, rainy season and dry season (winter)

English teachers: pathethic losers at home, prestigious over here!

Permanently "homeless" people *not* being removed by police or housing authorities

Handmade custom-tailored clothes available on most every corner (now, you just have to be able to communicate what you want!)

Ayurvedic and homeopathic medicine in every shop; aspirin is "English medicine"

Child labour (exception: Kerala)

Beggars with stump limbs and grotesque deformities

Every week is a different religious holiday for a different religion

Flowers grow all year round

Keeping a bottle of mineral water in the bathroom just to brush your teeth

Hershey's is an import; Cadbury is domestic

Hot water is a luxury

Being able to identify someone's religion or region by their headgear or dress

Buying everything, from underwear to a sweater to popcorn to a mirror, on the street

Goats, cows and packs of dogs on the sidewalk

Your washing machine and bathtub both are a plastic bucket

Instead of tossing your old sandals or broken umbrella, getting them repaired by the shy lower-caste guy on the corner

Doctor's visit: Three dollars (and worth every penny, ha ha)

Being treated like a rich person (ie, ability to stroll into five star lobbies and dawdle around without security being alerted) just by virtue of being a "foreigner"

BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper)

Taking a bus for ten cents, or a taxi across town for a dollar

Automatic VIP status for foreigners

Stores close for afternoon siesta

Stray dogs aren't rounded up and euthanized, but are alternately kicked, beaten, fed and played with

Saving water in a bucket in your bathroom; at least one day a week there is no water supply

Keeping a flashlight, candles and a lighter handy for power cuts

Everyone on your block knows your schedule and your entire life story
The temple down the road is "only" 300 years old

Internet cafes and public phones that work on nearly every corner

Waiting for "the boy" to bring something (towel, bucket, water, napkin, tea)
Goat and other carcasses, eyes still open, for sale on the road
Having conversations with persons of a dozen nationalities in one day (German, Japanese, Israeli, Dutch, Danish, Australian, Filipino, Indian, Italian, British, Brazilian, French, Korean, Swedish, Swiss, Nepali, Bhutanese) and being able to identify them by accent

Not having a phone in the house (residential landlines are rare)

Parking anywhere (with a motorbike or moped), usually for free (exception: Pune)

Waking up at 4am to the shattering cymbals and braying horns of Tibetan morning ritual music

Being nearly grazed by passing cars, motorcycles, cycle rickshaws and bicycles a dozen times a day

Every woman has a pierced nose, some more than one piercing

The Bunch of Keys (they are always old-fashioned, long handled keys and your house always has at least 3 different locks), also suitable for use as a weapon

Taking off your shoes before entering most rooms

Wearing sunblock every day, all day and still getting tanned

Tea is a staple

Wearing a face mask against air pollution
Couples holding hands now appear shocking

Seeing headlines like "500 teachers abducted; whereabouts unknown" or "Maoists slay 5 in Birgunj" on a daily basis

Seeing police with riot shields and barbed wire road blocks on every other corner

Cracked feet

Compulsively dark shops and restaurants (electricity is very expensive, and people try to conserve to the point of living in darkness)

101 Uses for coconut hair oil (makeup remover, body lotion, moisturizer) and Tiger Balm (congestion relief, headache cure, wakey-uppy)

Stepping over human and other excrement on the road; ability to identiy excrement (human from dog, and cow from horse from elephant) at a distance

Paying $1.00 for a latte is a splurge

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Top 5 Weird T-Shirt Slogans in Nepal

1. "Good Looking, Costs Lots of Money"
2. (front) "I'm Sorry" (back) "Let's just get this out of the way...I'm sorry honey"
3. "If you want to travel fast, stick to the old roads"
4. "I sleep only with the best one"
5. "I Love Fashion Style"

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

A Pilgrim's Blogress

Work in progress: This blog is a brand-new WIP, ergo the rough edges. Many times I edit and re-format the pages so the type, for instance, will be even, or the photos placed a certain way, and it just doesn't "take." I do it over and over... so there are still some editing bugs to work out. Also more features will be added, like my cutesy profile photo, a place for you all to leave sarcastic comments, colour-coordinated ad blocks, and all manner of other customizations. As they used to say on Johnny Carson, More To Come.

News from the Landlocked Insurgency-Wracked Isolated
Middle Mountain Kingdom
It is now time for Dasain, the largest Nepali festival of the year (Oct 4-14). Dasain is Nepal's Christmas, 10 days of celebration in honour of their patron Hindu goddess, Taleju Bhavani. The streets are thronged with shoppers, and public transport is chock-full as people who've been forced to leave home to look for work, or to flee local conflicts, try to return to their homeplace to celebrate.
On Sept. 3, the Maoists declared a unilateral ceasefire, which was met with relief by most locals, but with scorn by the Royal regime, who refused to acknowledge or reciprocate it, claiming it is a time-buyng ploy. It is a time of anticipation, increased activity and some uncertainty amid attempted celebration. The government is busy fixing prices for holiday necessities such as goats (required for the animal sacrifices to the goddess) and rice (the staple of Nepali life). As at Christmas time in the West, crime and robberies are on the rise as increasingly desperate people try to make ends meet.

from The Himalayan Times, Tues. 4 October 2005/22 Ashwin 2062*
--And US teachers claim they deserve "combat pay":
Teacher's Whereabouts Unknown
Phidim, Oct. 3: The whereabouts of over 500 teachers, whom the Maoists had abducted from different parts of Panchathar yesterday, is not known yet. Maoists had taken the teachers, including principals of high schools and higher secondary schools, to an unidentified location to make them take part in a "training programme."

Meanwhile, the family members of abductees have expressed concern over the status of those abducted. "I am very much worried abou t my husband," said Bina, wife of Rabindra Khatiwada, the principal of Panchathar Multiple Campus. According to eyewitnesses, the Maoists had abducted some of the teachers from the teachers' homes.
-----Sort of like trying to quit the Mafia:
One Shot Dead in Rautahat: An unidentified group shot dead Laxmi Rai Yadav of Haraiya VDC in Rautahat in front of the Shankar Secondary School on Monday afternoon. According to District Police, Yadav had surrendered before the local authorities a few weeks ago after quitting Terai Peoples' National Front.

----Can't tell the players without a scorecard, Pt. 1:
Maoists, State Both Continue to Violate Rights, says NHRC: Himalayan News Service, Birgunj Oct. 3: Notwithstanding a Maoist-called unilateral ceasefire,both the Maoists and the state have been violating human rights across the country, an official of the National Human Rights Commission has said. The Maoists have been abducting Nepali civilians, forcing closure of schools and compelling people to make donations, a member of the NHRC monitoring team said at a press conference organised here today.

Post-ceasefire, the Maoists' act of "collecting donations" from local businesspeople has suddenly gone up, he said.

Maoists have forced the closure of four schools in the district of Rautahat and a school in Thori village, Parsa district, it was stated at the press meet.

"We have evidence to prove that RNA (Royal Nepalese Army) personnel have been mentally and physically torturing the people placed under custody," he said. The NHRC monitoring team also accused the govt. of misusing the state mechanism to abduct people. "While at least 32 persons of Rautahat district have been taken into nonjudicial custody, the whereabouts of nine persons is not yet known," said the NHRC team.

....The NHRC monitoring team accused the govt. of victimising civilians in Parsha district. "Plainclothes security personnel terrorise localities," the NHRC team said, adding:"Security personnel have been blamed for mobilising civilians to spy against Maoists." The state has not yet made the whereabouts known of 2 arrested civilians, the NHRC said.

----"Said a local leader," who preferred not to be named:
War displaced people return home: Tanahun, Oct. 3: Conflict-displaced people of the district, who had been living in the district HQ and in the capital due to uncertainty, have begun returning home for Dasain. Those returning include activists of political parties, civilians, students and teachers. They said they were finding it secure to return home...."This Dasain will be a great one as we will be able to celebrate it without fear," said a local leader.
*Nepal has its own calendar, the Newari calendar, which is often used alongside the Western one. It is now the Newari month Ashwin, Year 2062.
I provide these newsclip edits as a window to the Nepali world for my foreign friends. To view the original sources, go to

Monday, October 03, 2005

Update - Kat, my Australian friend, is safe...just heard from her in a batch letter from Sumatra. She happened to be off the island of Bali at the time of the bombings. This is the 2nd time she has narrowly escaped bombs there. Plucky, and lucky, lass.

"Barrel of a Gun": Film South Asia 2005

3 October, Kathmandu: Today's intended blog about the South Asian film festival (subtitled "Barrel of a Gun") has been darkened by news about the Bali bombings. My friend Kat is in Bali right now and I am waiting to hear news (several foreign tourists were among the victims). Bali has always been one of my dream destinations.

Evidently this is the work of Islamic terrorists who want all of Indonesia to be Muslim. Bali is the last outpost of the formerly all-Hindu archipelago. This attack was certainly targeting Hindus and aiming at the heart of their economy, the tourist trade on this otherwise completely peaceful island. Such people seem determined to involve a land like Bali in the violent sphere the rest of Indonesia occupies.


Yesterday, I spent all of a beautiful fall day sitting in the dark, at the Film South Asia documentary festival. This annual festival screened films from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, India, Burma and Pakistan.

I was struck repeatedly by what an international crowd turned up. Even at the Kolkata (Calcutta) International Film Festival, a world class event, there are so few foreigners and the ones who do attend are very high-profile. Even I, a random visitor, was interviewed there on Bengali television and listed as "an American film critic"!

Here, no one batted an eye at me...or any of the other expats, mostly trekkers on a day off, or students of Buddhism. Then there were the long-term expat residents, NGO and charity workers and English teachers.

The young urban Nepalis turned out in great numbers, and seem extremely well informed. I was glad to see them taking a break from throwing rocks at the riot police (the usual occupation of college students in Kathmandu).

The Day My God Died (Nepal) has received the most attention, probably thanks to its narration by Winona Ryder and production sponsorship by Tim Robbins. It's a harrowing look at child trafficking from Nepal into India and how these girls are raped, tortured and forced into indentured servitude.

City of Photos (India) - anyone who's visited India know the extreme reverence with which photos are treated. This was a look inside the business of photo studios, past and present, and what the various poses, backdrops and costumes reflect about the aspirations and longings of the subjects.

Particularly moving were accounts of deathbed photos, retouched to make the eyes open and produce an after-the-last-minute portrait of someone who'd never had a photo while alive; and the role the neighborhood photographer played in documenting the devastation during the Gujarat genocide.

In the Shadow of the Pagodas (Burma): this filmmaker took a great risk by lying to the govt. authorities in order to shoot footage of the various rebel movements within Burma and on the Thai border. She told them they were making a promotional film about Burma as the "new" tourist destination, and how nice and safe it is. Truly it is an amazingly beautiful land, and one effect of its political isolation has been to shelter it from the overdevelopment, pollution, traffic and sprawl that has affected India. The filmmaker (Irene Marty) ventured into several different rebel territories and illustrated how various ethnic groups (the Shan, the Karen) are arrayed sometimes one against the other, as the Burmese government tries to subdue them all into a "unified" Myanmar. Footage shot from a hot-air balloon, floating over the jungles and golden pagodas, is enchanting. It was a real feat to smuggle this footage out of the country. The very real fear these people live in showed in their reticence to speak with the filmmaker, even while hiding deep in the jungles. I appreciated the Apocalypse Now style upriver boat ride-into-forbidden-territory sequences ("That's Cambodia, Captain!"). About a third of the entire country appears to be living in jungle refugee camps, really makeshiftbamboo hideouts at risk of being sacked at any moment by the Burmese armed forces. Most touching was a young boy who lost both parents in the pillaging of his village. He tried so hard to make the best of it. "I am glad I can go to is good that I can continue learning. But it is not like having my parents."

Sunday, October 02, 2005

To Clear Their Name

VAITAGWADI (IGATPURI, Maharashtra), OCTOBER 4: They hate the name of their village. In a quiet corner of the picturesque Igatpuri tehsil, barely 30 km from bustling Nashik, 57 families of tribal village Vaitagwadi want a new address: for vaitag literally translates into ‘‘irritant’’ and vaitagwadi, ‘‘irritating village’’.
Tired of being the butt of jokes, the residents now want the village to be called Dr Abdul Kalam Nagar in the honour of the President, who will be visiting them on October 15 as part of his tour to inspect the wadi (orchard) project in the region.‘‘I don’t know how our village got this name,’’ says a frustrated Dashrath Bendukale. ‘‘Everywhere we go, people ridicule us, saying the irritants have arrived. Unless we change the name to something positive, our problems will not go away’’. For now, this is at the top of the residents’ agenda, even though the area is plagued with water problems and have no roads. (siren comment: Sounds like the name is well warranted.) This is the second attempt to rename the village. ‘‘Five years ago, we wanted to call ourselves Gokulnagar,’’ says Balkisan Darane. Source: Indian Express

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Window Seat: By Bus to Nepal

Nowadays you can fly from India, or anywhere, to Nepal, of course. That would save pain in your backside, and enable you to see the Himalayas from the air - during the dry season only. In monsoon they're not visible (June-October or so).

However, you will then miss the rides through thrilling border towns like Gorakhpur, Senauli, Butwal and Beheliya, a whistle stop through Lumbini, the birthplace of Lord Buddha, not to mention umpteen (about 12) road blocks by the Royal Nepalese Army looking sharp in their blue camo and AKs. You do get a beautiful, if long, bus ride through the lower Terai and shimmering green terraced rice fields. Most tourists don't go to this part of Nepal. It was cool to be vaulted from the dry, dusty drab Senauli border almost directly into the emerald plains then up, up into the misty hills, and to see the "real" Nepal prior to arrival in the big city.

An added attraction was the fresh rubble from recent landslides blocking the roads. This is a very real danger during rainy season. The meandering highway followed the steep Rapti river gorge for at least five hours, sheer hillsides with a violent grey ribbon of river below, swollen by the seasonal rains.

I came by train from India to Gorakhpur, UP, spent one night there at the Ellora Hotel (150rs, very clean up top), and caught the 4am bus to Senauli. From Senauli I was hauled by a 15 year old on a cycle rickshaw to the Indian border post, where they wearily stamp your exit. I then continued on the cycle rick across the border to Beheliya - now Nepal - where the considerably cheerier Nepali border people take your $30, photo and stamp you IN for 60 days. Change your money nearby.

DON'T bring in any Indian 500Rs notes, they are banned right now in Nepal. 100s are fine but no 500s or 1000Rs. I didn't believe them and later had a really hard time changing the Indian 500s for Nepali. You have to find an Indian person (try hotel proprietors) and keep it top secret.

By this time one of a dozen touts will have approached you for the mini-bus ride into Kathmandu, which leaves either right there by the border, or a short taxi ride away. I paid about 250Indian Rs for the 9-hour ride - no extra charge for the serangi-playing urchins who climbed aboard to serenade us, or the old ladies in head wraps carrying baskets of turnips, or the 10 year old hawker with his backward baseball cap that careens out the open door and yells at every stop, "Ho Kamadoo Kamadoo! Ho Kamadoo Kamadoo!" Midway to "Kamadoo" another tout will have approached you offering a room. Don't worry, they are not nearly as pushy as the Indian touts. You can arrive in Kathmandu with a hotel and even a prearranged ride from the bus station (they cel phone ahead).

Don't eat any food on the road that is not from a sealed pack, ever. Even if you're starving, which you will be after nine hours of potato chips. I got giardia this way.

India For Dummies

Calling All India Virgins!
Lonely Planet has a message board full of hilarious questions from India first-timers. Some examples: "Can I get a Starbucks Chai Latte in India?" and "Would it be safe to be seen reading a Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses book on an Indian train?" It's tempting to write back and say "Yes, if you are seen reading or even known to own a copy of Salman Rushdie, any Muslim within eyeshot will slit your throat instantly."

But seriously: every year thousands of India first-timers, most of them college age, head off on the Great Journey. Most of them have visions of either a mystical incense-laden land, or a seething horde of scheming humanity. The reality, of course, lies somewhere in between. As an India veteran (also a Manhattan veteran; I specialize in living in improbable places), I would tell them:

1-READ UP before you go. Particularly good is Culture Shock: India, the Lonely Planet current guide, and Lonely Planet's guide to health in Asia. Personally, I read everything I could get my hands on: travelogues, history, culture and customs. It will add dimension to your travels, explain many strange things you'll see, and enable you to better understand people you meet along the way.
1a. One does go to India for history, exotica and culture, but India is really all about the people. Believe me, there's no avoiding them, so brush up on your small talk!

2-FORGET your romantic notions of spiritual India. It is the most materialistic place on earth, in some ways for good reason (see below). Also the most interesting. After India, everywhere else in Asia, and perhaps the world outside of Bagdhad, will be a piece of cake. See #8 and #6.

3-DON'T BE SCARED. Don't do dumb s***, like flash lots of money, but don't be scared. India is madcap, energetic, and endlessly amusing.

4-LEARN some of the local language. Even your mistakes will thrill the people to no end and if nothing else, it will show them you're not the average stupid tourist.

5-WEAR traditional clothes, especially for girls. This means, in most cases, a Punjabi suit (aka salwar-kameez or churidar, the long baggy pyjama pants, long tunic top and accompanying scarf draped over the chest). I cannot stress this enough. Ladies, do not wear your hair down, especially blondes. Loose hair is a sign of a loose woman in many places, and if you are a foreign woman, you are doubly suspect and are, in local custom, asking for harassment. (unless you're in Mumbai, then no one cares.)
5a. If you want to get along with local people and be treated with any kind of respect, don't dress like a hippy. Indians have vivid memories of the first big wave of 60s and 70s tourists, and few of them (the memories) are positive. Also, any time you have to deal with any person in an office, or law enforcement, it pays to clean up.

6. A word about bargaining/haggling: Most Asians have barganing down to an art form. It is in their blood, particularly trader groups like Kashmiris. It is an art form you will never master, but must become decent at in order to have any money left by the end of your trip. Remember, bargaining is just the normal way here - they do it with locals as well. The difference is, locals know the game. Learn the game and see it as a game. DO NOT feel guilty about not paying 'enough.' Believe me, they will never let you get away without their having made some profit. Since you don't know the rates, you don't realize this. When a driver suggests 200Rs for an 80Rs ride, he is not trying to be a bastard - he's just negotiating. He is doing his job. It is your job to counter with half or less of the original amount. He expects this and is not offended by it! From his point of view, he may not get such a good fare the rest of the day. If he can make a day's wages in one go, why not? There is little social mobility and few chances for "getting ahead" in India's rigid, slowly changing social structure. The only way around it sometimes is to "cheat," or as they would say, be "smart." Fair play has never gotten the average Indian very far, so they often resort to these things. Don't get righteous, just hold your ground and keep smiling.

7-DO NOT get involved in drugs, or hang around people who do. Period. This is one good way to get in trouble, fast.

8-Keep a sense of humour, and do not lose your cool. You will NOT always succeed in this....but keep it as your goal.

9-Remember that to many, not all, of these folks, you are a walking bank. If you keep this in mind *without resentment* and regardless of the exchange taking place, regardless of how 'nice' anyone is, you will fare MUCH better in India. Just accept it and go on. Get used to it and don't let it get to you. Eventually, you will get past these people and meet some nice folks.

10-Do not display affection openly with your boy/girlfriend. Don't even hold hands. This is considered a slap in the face outside of Goa or Mumbai.

11. Don't bother asking for food with 'no spice.' they don't know how to cook this way. It works better to say NO GREEN CHILI. The green chilis are the really hot fiery things.

12. Any time money changes hands, REGARDLESS of who it's with - your nice old auntie innkeeper, anybody - it is time to be alert. Get a receipt for everything, absolutely everything. If you buy a museum ticket, be ready to show it at any time - they love to get official about paperwork.

13. Regardless of what your hippy friends say, do not "go native" and start cleaning yourself after the toilet with your hand. Most digestive diseases are transmitted fecal-to-oral. The fact that local custom does not understand this, plus the scarcity of water and soap in many places, accounts for the fact that 1000s of people still die of simple diarrhea every year here and in Nepal. This means that unless you have access, EVERY time, to good running (preferably hot) water, plenty of soap, and a clean towel, you will infect yourself. Needless to say, all these things are pretty scarce outside of star hotels. BYOTP (bring your own toilet paper) and mini bar of soap.

Questions? Hate mail? Don't forget to write, and include your email! Most of all, have a great time. It's a great country and I am proud to now call it home, even if they still call me 'a foreigner.'