Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Photo opportunity

A place to see my pictures
Kathmandu, Nepal

Since Blogger hasn't been uploading my photos for, oh, about a month now, I have uploaded a bunch to my good old Trekshare page. So if you want to see photos of the Maoist rally, Rishikesh, Dehra Dun, and the Kalachakra, just go to http://www.trekshare.com/members/sirensongs

If you click on the camera icons next to the story title, you can turn the "pages" of photos like a book. Have fun.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Mystique of Mustang

The Last Shangri-La
Kathmandu, Nepal

Nothing like spending your precious time in Shangri-La lying flat on your back with an eye infection in a darkened hotel room. Thank god (can we still do that in a secular country? some people I met actually believe that a "secular" Nepal means no one is allowed to be religious anymore) - thank god there's cable TV. At least I can lie there and listen to CNN - my eyes hurt too much to read. Suddenly, every other damned thing on the TV seems to be about blindness. The Ray Charles biopic comes on HBO, and Standard Chartered keeps running that commercial about the blind marathon runner. I go to Tom & Jerry's and Stevie Wonder is playing.

The romantic in me laments the loss of the last Hindu kingdom, though I believe that due to the caste system's literal enshrinement in the Nepali law as of 1854, secularization is really for the best in terms of social progress. Now I discover there's yet another Himalayan kingdom tucked away within the Nepalese borders - the district known as Mustang (Moo-stahng).

Despite being part of Nepal, Mustang still has its own king, the Buddhist monarch Jigme Somebody. He's a true monarch and daily life begins with the locals circumambulating his palace. Mustang lies up on the Tibetan Plateau beyond the rainshadow of the mountains. Unfortunately, it costs $700 US dollars just to get a ten-day permit to visit Mustang. And that's before you pay for the porters, food, tents, mules and so on since there are no tourist facilities. Needless to say, Mustang will not be graced by my presence this year. Instead, I am looking into the adventurous route to Thailand and Burma, overland from India. This should require getting all kinds of permits in order to travel through Nagaland and other restricted northeastern states; then a special permission to cross the land border into Burma, assuming they will give it. I'm going to the Burmese Embassy tomorrow to check it out (hell, if I can't go to the last Shangri-la kingdom, Burma By Land is the next most exotic-sounding thing within reach).

Meanwhile, as I lie in darkness in the hotel, historic happenings abound virtually just outside my window. No less than the Maoist Brother #1 Prachanda came to the Prime Minister's residence a few blocks away last week for negotiations with the interim government. The Maoist leadership are pragmatic, they are not idealists and firebrands, and seem committed to joining the political mainstream. However, I don't know that their field ops will feel so enfranchised, and I predict that once the head honchos join the power structure in Kathmandu, the field marshalls will be alienated from the centre and take matters into their own hands. The history of Nepal has traditionally been Kathmandu vs. the hills; I see no reason for it to change now. You heard it here first.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Visa Thing

Instructional viewer mail
Kathmandu, Nepal

A viewer known only as "IndiaFan" writes:
I noticed you're stationed in Nepal. Do I need to get a Nepali visa in advance, or can I get it at the border on arrival? and do you know anything about getting the new Indian visa in Nepal?

The answer is Yes; at any Indo-Nepali border town (there are four - Mahendranagar, Bhairawa, Birganj and Kakarbhitta) or at the Kathmandu airport they will issue
you 60 days' visa for $30 US. For some reason, this must be paid in USD$. Even British citizens must pay in dollars! Why? Who knows! Personally I think it goes straight into the king's pocket.

In Nepal, at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu (on
Lainchaur just up the road from the British Embassy), one can get a new 6 months' visa to India. There are rumours that travel agents can get you a one year's tourist visa, but you must pay baksheesh to the agents, not go to the Embassy directly for this. At the Embassy, they will pretend they have nooooo idea what you mean... but someone there must, because someone is issuing these 1-year visas. I personally do not advocate such practices as I've found them to be rife with problems (not to mention overpriced).

Currently they are giving only double-entry visas, not the usual multiple; but on request I asked for triple, and they gave it!

-Do you know any nice, clean hotel in Kathamndu to wait for visa and where is the Indian Embassy there?

There are loads of them - I stay at the Hotel Northfield in Thamel, also the famous Kathmandu Guest House, you can't go too far wrong with these. Northfield will get you a single room w/hot water and cable for about $10, less if you bargain as it is now off-season. Room rates are very flexible here. If you want to go ultra cheap yet clean try Holy Lodge round the corner, tiny room w/shared bath for $2.50 a night.

The Indian Embassy is well-known to all drivers, rickshaw cyclists and is also walkable distance from Thamel. It's in a neighborhood called Lazimpat where most embassies are, just down the road from British Embassy. All cab drivers know these and don't pay more than 50 Nepali Rs (less than $1) for a cab from these hotels I mentioned.

Let me fill you in on the Indian visa scoop - when I did it, it was November - high tourist season in Nepal - and you had to show up for the queue at literally 5 or 6am and sit outside the gates in order to be seen by closing time at 12 noon! Bring a book! Now it might be better because it's getting off season.

On the first visit, you must be seen between 9am and 12 noon. You just turn in an application and 300 NRs - they give you a receipt and a day, about 3 days later, to return. During this time they fax the Embassy in your home country to see if you're persona grata.

On the return date, you come again early in the AM (like 6am) and bring the price, for Americans it's 4600 NRs, less for others. For some reason Americans pay 1100NRs more than any other nationality. I say, before we give away any more nuclear goodies, we need to get that straightened RIGHT out.

They really like you to "tender" exact change here. You present the receipt, they take the Visa fee and your passport, and give you yet another receipt tell you to come back after 3.30 pm the same day.

Go have lunch at the Hotel Ambassador down the road or the KFC cafe and come back in the afternoon. At that point, you go to the 2nd window, with your 2nd receipt and they should have your passport with the visa sticker inside. I turned mine in on a Friday and got the visa on a Wednesday.

Although I must say, after spending a few days in Nepal, you may be wondering why you'd ever want to return to India. Just... maybe. Off the top of my head I would have said "rava dosa and idly," but Nepali Banchha Ghar and Dudh Sagar on Kantipath do them very well, thanks.
Of course, it's no Saravana Bhavan (still haven't found Idiyappam kurma or lime soda sweet here).


at a loss for a clever subtitle...
Kathmandu, Nepal

It's official - my eyes are screwed up. I have something called Punctate Keratitis (in case you want to Google it) and will be in semi-retirement till it clears up. If you want a good scare just translate Punctate Keratits to "tiny little holes in my cornea."

But not before I get in a good rant
Remember last January when I passed through Majnu Ka Tilla (also known as the Only Decent Place to Stay in Delhi)?

Well, it was just too nice to allow to exist. I mean, a peaceful, relatively clean, cheap place to live within Delhi? NOT possible meddem! So, the authorities have decided it has to go!

Check out the full story
here. How come change around here is always destructive, never creative or constructive? Kali Yuga indeed!

Just adds insult to irony (or is it vice versa?) that MKT is home to lots of political refugees. Now I guess they're double refugees.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Future tense

This week's Viewer Mail
Kathmandu, Nepal

Science fiction aficionado Darkhorse in Nashville (don't say Nashville, where? there is only one Nashville) writes:

Dear Siren:
Here's a review from the Washington Post of River of Gods by Hugo Award winning writer Ian McDonald.
India lovers are said to love it. - Yours truly, Darkhorse

Science Fiction and Fantasy: India's apocalyptic future

By Martin Morse
Tomorrow on the Subcontinent
Scan the shelves of the science fiction section at your local bookstore, and you'll find all sorts of novels about adventure in the distant future. But the book you're least likely to find is the novel that aims to show us what the future will be like in 25 or 50 years.(...)

Ian MacDonald, however, has not heard the news that no one wants to read about the near future any more. His River of Gods: August 15, 2047 -- Happy Birthday, India (Pyr, $25) is a bold, brave look at India on the eve of its centennial, 41 years from now.(...)

In River of Gods, the lives of nine characters, including a police officer, a journalist, an astronaut and the aide to a powerful politician, intertwine as India veers toward an apocalypse caused by a reckless search for cheap power. MacDonald predicts that India will be divided into several warring states, each with sophisticated robot armies. Gender switching -- and the abandonment of gender entirely -- will be commonplace. Artificial intelligence will be advanced enough so that machines will pass for humans most of the time.

MacDonald takes his readers from India's darkest depths to its most opulent heights, from rioting mobs and the devastated poor to high-level politicians and lavish parties. He handles his complex plot with flair and confidence and deftly shows how technological advances and social changes have subtly changed lives. River of Gods is a major achievement from a writer who is becoming one of the best Science Fiction novelists of our time.

Dear Darkhorse:
It' s nice that someone besides that shrill, one-note harpy Arundhati Roy is worried about India's future. From all the glowing masturbation and self-congratulation in the "lifestyle" Indian press you would think there was nothing but Blue Skies and Capuccino Forever on the increasingly crowded and polluted horizon. Anyone who points out evidence to the contrary is liable to be shunned into silence or run out a rail on grounds of anti-nationalist and overly realistic sentiment.

Free expression is under definite attack here. National Security (in its local form of "communal sensibilities") is the cause often named for silencing. No less than seven states in the so-called World's Largest Hypocrisy (OOPS, I mean, Democracy!) saw fit to ban the Da Vinci Code movie because it might offend someone, especially those who are too pious to go see it in the first place.

In the wake (literally) of the deadly Danish cartoon debacle, everyone wants to get in on Being Offended. Being Offended is a guaranteed way to gain political ground and silence your perceived enemies. If we can't cut the hands off of all offending artists, next the law will have us all ripping our eyeballs out prophylactically to prevent us from viewing something potentially harmful to our innocent sensibilities.

Of course, seeing limbless beggars and starving children working captive on garment industry looms is not deemed offensive enough to warrant a ban, or any legal action whatsoever. It's those movies and artists that are causing all the problems in society. For one thing, they cause young couples to hold hands in public (and no, it's not just "backward" places like Bihar where the moral police see fit to assault these kids).

But I digress. Returning to the book in question:

MacDonald has, at the very least, been reading the more relevant sections of the Indian newspapers; there is definitely a looming apocalypse thanks to the race for cheaper power. Several states (Karnataka vs. Tamil Nadu, for instance) are already at "war" over water.

And the summer headlines fairly scream "After 5000 years of sweating continuously, every single one of us deserves to have central air conditioning RIGHT NOW! How are we going to get it?!?! We don't care how many villagers we have to displace, goddamnit it, now that we can afford designer clothes, we shouldn't have to sweat anymore!!!!"

However, he is conspicuously wrong about the "sophisticated robot armies." Any machine requires maintainance. Machines here, even simple ones like light fixtures and credit card machines, often stay broken for years. Besides, we already have a sort of "robot army" to fight our battles and do our dirty work for us. It's called The Poor.

Gender switching is not necessary, since every Indian knows that sex officially does not exist. That's why there are a billion people. They were all created by our entirely chaste, virtuous sex-free culture, which has advocated propagation by fission since ancient Vedic times. Married men and women lie next to one another fully clothed and reproduction occurs. (The sexual poses you see in certain ancient Hindu temples were actually created by aliens, in order to defame and give a bad name to true, virtuous, sexless Indian culture.)

And rather than having machines that pass for humans, we prefer to just turn humans into machines. My friends in Delhi didn't even know the name of their maid who cooked their meals every day. Why bother? she's not a person, after all. A few weeks ago the Times of India ran a supposedly humourous column by a woman lamenting the "loss of her precious object." This priceless possession had been "stolen" from her, she wept, by a former friend. At the end of the column you realize she is talking about a servant formerly under her employ. I guess it never occurred to her that the servant was a person, capable of deciding where she wanted to work on her own. No, the servant was an object, to be given or taken at will.

Besides, machines mean efficiency. If we were efficient, something might get done; and if something got done, things might actually change.

And that can never, ever, be allowed to happen. Because India has no problems and is perfect the way it is.

So go away and leave us alone.

Monday, June 12, 2006

There goes the bride

Village People
Lodhsi Village, above Shivpuri, Uttaranchal

I am stuck here in Kathmandu with no camera battery (it's $75 USD, wanna sponsor me?), no money, waiting for the new Indian visa....so, for today's program let's rewind a month or so.

April 30, 2006
Akshaya Trithya

Remember Mukti, the restaurant owner
who served me brown rice with a dead insect attached? He invited me to a friend's wedding in a nearby Garhwali village. In some ways, the wedding was like going back into time - anyone who is fascinated by Indian culture would have loved it. We had to drive way up into the foothills (close to being respectably sized mountains at that point) and then hike up a trail for one hour. At this point it was 10.30 or 11 am, not a good time to be hiking through nonfoliate hills (ie, in the sun). By the time we got there I was truly about to pass out. The groom rode up the trail ahead of us on a tricked-out donkey rather than the more romantic, customary white horse. They explained that a horse is not agile enough to make it up the steep, gravelly slides.

Today was Akshaya Trithiya, traditionally a most auspicious day for weddings. On the way up to Shivpuri we had passed no fewer than five other wedding parties.

In Indian weddings, the groom is often the one, rather
than the bride, who is veiled. He wears (I got lots of photos) a kind of tinfoil turban that looks like a cheap magician's costume, with tinselly fringe hanging down infront of his face. It does have the practical purpose of keeping the flies away, but the traditional stated purpose is that of preventing the Evil Eye. That is, if the groom is lookin' really fine on the way to the wedding, some unmarried girls (or their parents) could cast eyes on him in jealousy and thus mar the proceedings or even put a curse of sorts on him. The procession was led by two drummers who banged traditional percussion instruments with what looked like stripped down tree branches (not the polished wooden drumsticks we use). The groom on his donkey, the donkey-minder who stayed behind to whack the animal every once in a while, all the groom's family and future in-laws and ourselves (the esteemed VIP foreign guests with our fancy cameras) wended our way slowly up the hillside. The tinsel marriage turban kept slipping down the groom's perspiring forehead and he adjusted it repeatedly.

The views were stunning ones of the Garhwali Himalayan foothills and the turquoise Ganges below. It was thankfully breezy, though hot. I wondered why there were not more trees. Someone told me a few weeks ago that these used to be teakwood forests before the British cut them all down, but that was sixty years ago; more trees should have grown by now.

When we finally reached the terraced hillside home of the bride, the entire village seemed to have turned out for the occasion - waiting expectantly for the approach of the drummers. Little children, families and elders all stood on the terraces as though they were stadium bleachers - boys perched in the trees like monkeys. The groom was greeted under a special archway erected from stalks of banana trees. The women of the bride's family, and the rent-a-pundit priests, had to remove any evil eye from him by greeting him with a ceremonial flame (ghee lamp on a tray), incense and Sanskrit chanting. They repeatedly daubed his forehead (actually, the tinsel marriage crown covered his forehead completely) with red tikka and turmeric paste dots before leading him into the roped-off area of the yard that had been designated for the wedding - and of course, as seating for us VIPs. The villagers, who'd probably known the bride all her life, had to make do sitting on the parched earth and dried grass. We were given the prestigious moulded plastic chairs under a homemade awning (bed sheets stretched between wooden poles) to protect our fair skin from the sun. Only we foreigners and the bride and groom's family were important enough to be seated here.

Naturally I sensed I was missing the real
photo-ops and got up to look around. The house itself is a handmade one of wood and mud. It had been specially decorated with traditional white striping reading "Swagatham"(welcome) and "Shubh Vivaha" (good wedding). The lower story had two low-roofed, dark rooms and a family of water buffalo living under the porch. The upper storey window was crowded with demure village lasses who beckoned me shyly to come visit.

The bride doesn't have the same problem of avoiding the evil eye, usually because she is sequestered the day of the wedding. Inside the mud house, the bride sat cowering, covered up in tinsel and so much gold jewellery that her hands looked like metallic claws. You may think cowering is a judgmental word, but that's exactly what she was doing - trembling, in fact. The heat was unbearable, at least to me, in the top floor of the mud house but the bride sat motionless under her veil of red and shiny gold, head demurely downcast. When asked to raise her head for my photos, though, she met my camera with an impressively stoic and strong gaze.

Despite the presence of electricity, there was no fan and no one fanned the bride (a sign of honour) - instead the grandmother sitting nearby picked up a piece of cardboard and fanned me. I guess I was more important than the bride, in some way. A young man came to the door and offered a glass of RoohAfza or cool rosewater, the same colour as the bride's red sari. Cool water of any kind was a real commodity there and I wondered how in the world they had refrigerated it. It turned out that someone had carried (!) a cooler of big, old-fashioned ice blocks all the way up there for just such frivolities.

Meena was incredibly beautiful, even to someone who has spent three years looking at Indian women. I had seen the groom and he was nice looking, but he was getting a real deal with this girl. Unfortunately no one in the house spoke a word of English (but they did understand when I said "So beautiful!"), so they could not answer my questions about the marriage situation. Did Meena's family have to pay a dowry? had she ever seen or met the groom previously? How old was Meena? what was her education? What was the groom's profession?

Eventually a young man came along who spoke enough English to answer some of my questions. He denied that the family had paid a dowry; and while I was not sure I believed him, it did seem that the groom's family should be paying up in order to get such a remarkable girl. Meena had finished high school. The groom's family owned a restaurant down in Ram Jhula and had a big, pucca house (one made of concrete with more than one storey). They had become engaged through the network of other families in their caste, namely, the Garhwali Thakur caste - something like Kshatriyas, the warrior caste of old. Long ago, perhaps three hundred years before, their forebears had come to the Garhwal mountains from Rajasthan, known for its warrior tradition.

a had met the groom once before - of course, with both of the families present. This was during the ritual called "going to see the girl." The groom's entire family trekked up the mountain to "view" Meena. At this point she had to be on her best behaviour, being very deferential, never looking strange men in the eye and probably serving tea to her potential in-laws. I couldn't ascertain whether the bride and groom had ever had a confidential conversation, but it seemed unlikely.

Other families have told me that the girl's behaviour at
this point ("Going to meet the Girl") is critical. How does she treat the family members? Is she well-behaved? (I would imagine this means, does she do as she's told?) It is strictly a buyer's market; Meena was the fourth daughter and I would imagine the parents were relieved at finding a groom that didn't ask too much dowry.

To be continued

Sunday, June 11, 2006

A bicycle built for me

Down Memory Lane
Kathmandu, Nepal
(sorry, photos are still not uploading. there is supposed to be a charming photo of an old man with a turban, a goat, and a bike here.)

So many people ride bicycles here in Asia, not to mention the bicycle rickshaws aplenty. Even the milk is still delivered here in big metal cannisters, from the backs of bikes. Often the milk-bikes are so heavy that they guy can't really ride, he just pushes the bike. In early morning I lie in bed listening to their bells chiming down the lane.

Few of these bike riders are pedaling for their health. Rather, they consider themselves impoverished because they are not driving either a motor scooter, or a car. I am reminded of college days in Tennessee.

I went to college (the second time) in a small town, Murfreesboro, which was, unlike most of America, perfect for a bike. There was no way I could afford a car so bought a 10 speed bike at a yard sale for $25. I rode this bike EVERYWHERE, including in the freezing winter, to the grocery store too. Once a week I had to buy heavy things like milk and drinking water, so I had to find a ride in a car. Otherwise I rode the bike everywhere. I loved it! I was like a hero to the guys at the bike shop.

However, the car-driving commuters (ie, everyone else in town) hated it. They have this idea that bikes are dangerous (because they are not cars) and somehow feel that bikes take up too much room (!) - room that they feel rightfully belongs to cars. They would honk, hoot and all but throw things.

I considerd getting a sticker, or sign, or a t-shirt back that said "Don't honk at me - I'm not dependent on foreign oil." (This was during the first Gulf War, in 1991).

But I was advised by local friends not to do this. I would certainly get honked at, hooted at and most probably, attacked for such a shirt. At the very least, I would probably have things thrown at me because the drivers would somehow believe (wrongly) that I did not "support the troops."

Amazing, sixteen years later, so little has changed. Like they said on Will & Grace, "Wow, it's been so long! Last time we got together, Bush was in the White House, and we were getting ready to invade Iraq!"

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Cease Fire

The Cup runneth over
Kathmandu, Nepal

It's Saturday night, and everyone is mesmerized by the World Cup (today it's UK vs Paraguay, zzzz). It works out well for me, because it means the bar band across the street isn't playing. Techno may have taken over the rest of the world, but Kathmandu is still a rock 'n' roll town. From about 7.30 pm to 10.30 or 11, I am treated to high-volume cover serenades like "La Bamba," "Cocaine," "Roadhouse Blues" (thank God they don't do Eminem covers, and do NOT tell them I said that; it might give them ideas for branching out). It's so loud, I really would have no reason to go to the bar at all, even if I wanted to hear the music. In fact, I could have a dance party in my room, if it were big enough.

Instead, the Full Moon Bar, like everyone else in town with a screen of any kind, is showing the World Cup, so all I hear are the occasional outbursts of cheering. The BBC, my usual source of a sane, English-speaking voice, spent no less than an hour (okay, it seemed like an hour) on World Cup Coverage this morning. Maybe all the Yanks in town can have an alternative get-together while this is going on. I am sitting in the Cafe New Orleans courtyard surrounded by Europeans. Not an American in sight - I can tell by the hushed, reverential silence.... How long does this World Cup stuff go on, anyway? I want to know how many quiet evenings I can look forward to. It's like having my own little cease-fire!

As time goes by... at the Hard Yak Cafe
Here at the Cafe New Orleans, I can type on free wireless while enjoying my tea and brown rice. I had planned to update all the Blogs with photos, but they just are not uploading regularly. An afternoon here has the feeling of Sam's Bar in Casablanca, an international outpost of outcasts, expats and misfits, riding out the storm of insanity elsewhere. It's got the tropical trees, birds chirping, strains of jazz and sitar music, tea and 4pm cocktails, and low tables with hippy seat cushions. Prayer flags waft in the wind. All that's missing is Sam's mojo piano, but we have CDs of Dixieland jazz instead.

A Message from Lama
At my guesthouse in Rishikesh, all the waiters, cooks and "house boys" were Nepali. I got to know them and bits of their stories. Some, like Ganesh, were trapped into arranged marriages at very early ages (in his case, 21; his bride was 17) so never had a chance to get higher education; they had to support kids almost right away. Others, like Deepak, Ramchandra and Rajkumar, are fleeing almost certain induction into the Maoists' army. Even if they are in no immediate danger, the insurgency has drastically reduced employment chances at home, so they join the growing community of some 2 million Nepalis who have migrated south to the neighboring superpower, hoping for a break. All come from small rural villages. Those who can send money back home to their families, though I learned that in many cases, they were working for little more than food, tips, and a place to sleep.

"Which is your village?" is a guaranteed opener in the Nepali diaspora. If you have heard of their village (or district), they are very happy and beam with pride. If you have actually been to their village, even just riding through on the bus, you are their instant adopted sister.

In the case of Rajkumar Lama, I became something of a hero. Not only had I heard of NamoBuddha, but I had been there; and not only had I been to NamoBuddha, I actually had photos of it - on my laptop. With the stroke of a few keys I was able to pull up images of his home town on my magic machine.

"I know him!" he exclaimed, pointing to a photo of people sitting in the community square. The people in the photo were processing the rice harvest, seated around the Buddhist stupa that is the centrepiece of so many villages. After a while I wondered whether Rajkumar actually knew everyone he saw in the photos, or whether he was just so homesick, everyone he saw began to look familiar.

As someone who was heading for the Promised Land in just a few days, it was obviously my duty to offer to deliver goods and messages. Rajkumar asked me to deliver a message to his friend working at a restaurant in Kathmandu.

"You go to Nepali Chulo," he said. "You ask for Hari Lama." Surnames are giveaways here; "Lama" indicates that they both belong to the Buddhist Tamang ethnic group, prominent in East Nepal. (The Buddha Boy was Tamang.)

"What should I tell him?"

"Just tell him Rajkumar Lama." He wrote his cell number into my book. I offered him a blank page to write a Nepali message, but he shook his head "no."

Blank University
Today I walked up to the restaurant, Nepali Chulo. It's an enormous "Nepali Theme" place, built in the style of a traditional Newari house, with a "traditional and ethnic folk music and dancing" floor show; the kind of place popular with large busloads of European tour groups. The owner had told me previously that they'd lost lakhs (hundreds of thousands) of rupees keeping this high-overhead place open during the lean spring season, when there had been riots and demonstrations daily. Now they are tearing up that section of Kantipath, seemingly to widen the road. Clouds of construction dust blew into my face as I walked up the busy four-lane street.

All of His Majesty's favourite conundrum signs are gone. "All organs of the State must remain alert...." which made such nice souvenir photos just a few weeks ago, are all history! Every sign for goverment offices has been changed from, for example, "HM Govt. of Nepal Tax Excise Office" to "Nepal Govt. Tax Excise Office." Even the signs for Tribhuvan University, named for a king of long ago, have had the "Tribhuvan" marked out so they just say "University." I wonder what they will rename the college. I suppose they will change the name of Tribhuvan International Airport as well. ("Blank International Airport.") It seems indicative of the state of the nation; they know they've firmly rejected the past; they're just not sure what's next.

Hari Lama stood a full head shorter than me, with the onyx almond eyes, razor-sharp cheekbones and elfin demeanor of so many eastern Nepalis. Despite the relative heat, he wore full-length traditional kurta-salwar, vest and black topi. I have always wondered how the men can move about comfortably in those stovepipe-tight pants, but they look like a million bucks.

In exchange for delivering this enigmatic message from afar, Hari offered me a cup of tea in the deserted dining room. I realized that, as a Tamang, Hari would be a perfect translator for my planned visit to Aama, the Tamang Shaman. I've really got to get rid of these stomach cramps, and I've tried everything else, including the expensive foreigners' clinic. Why not try a traditional Buddhist Shaman?

Glancing around the empty hall, I realized just how bad business must have been lately. I wish I could offer Hari something besides the message. If things don't pick up, he will have no trouble getting an afternoon off to accompany me to Aama the Shaman.

Not a photo opportunity

Drawing a blank
Kathmandu, Nepal

Okay, I have spent the past 2 hours on line trying to upload photos to Blogger and Trekshare. Nothing is uploading. I don't know if it's the limitations of the local wireless system here at my friend's cafe, or...what, but sorry, I just am not able to upload the photos this way. Maybe some other way...that means I have to find a cyber-cafe with a working disk drive (amazingly difficult - there's usually one in every shoppe, and you have to wait for it) and upload from a CD. I have cool photos of the Maoist rally and my cross-country bus ride.

Oh great, NOW it uploads. Okay, guess I have to redo this whole entry...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The MahaMatrix

Bharat Matrixa
Kathmandu, Nepal

This week's Viewer Mail:
Long-time correspondent Robert, in Northern California, writes:

Dear Siren:
I still do not understand. I have been reading your articles for three years. All of your articles since reaching Nepal (also on your previous visit to Nepal, and when in Sri Lanka) sound like a normal, sane, clear-headed person. But for the last few months (since your illness in Madras), your writing has been like someone who cannot concentrate... or worse! What's happening?

Dear Robert:
I have been a student of Indian history and culture for more than ten years. Having lived in India for over three years now, people ask me what I have learned about India. And, more importantly, people even ask why, in my writing of this blog, I suddenly seem to be a different person.

This is what I say:
At the risk of getting really mystical, there is a Hindu concept called Leela or Maya. Leela means something like "cosmic play," Maya is "illusion" and Mahamaya is "great illusion" ("the creative, illusion-making power of God"). These forces appear repeatedly in Hindu mythology and scripture. Only the gods and powerful mystics have the ability to see beyond the Leela. Like The Matrix, everyone else is caught up in the "program."

India is under a very, very heavy Leela. They have to be. Otherwise, everyone would go crazy and it would all fall apart. Actually it is slowly falling apart and they are all already crazy, but because of the Leela & Mahamaya (the Matrix), no one realizes it.

I have noticed that other people write about this as well... about how in India, you have to do a lot of "play acting" and pretending. It's okay as long as you know it's pretending. The danger is that if you play a part long enough, it becomes real.

After spending too long in India, I lose my ability to see beyond the Mahamaya Matrix. I start to get caught up in it. You can see the difference when Indians come to the US. They are like normal people there. They say things that make sense. They actually answer questions. You can have straightforward conversations with Indians when they live in the US. Sometimes, they even acknowledge that problems exist. When they have been abroad long enough, they eventually will even acknowledge that Indian problems exist, in India!

Get them back over here, and BAM! - Mahamaya Matrix strikes again! Other foreigners have described this (this effect on themselves, as well as on Indian acquaintances).

You can also see it with Indian friends here in India - the difference hanging around me and other foreigners, then the way they behave when other Indians come into the room. Amazing! It's just like the movie - they are terrified of being discovered as a traitor to The MahaMatrix. You saw the movie, you know what happens when you are found out!

Anyway, I blame India. Or more accurately, Mahamaya. But - I really don't know what you're talking about, since, there is no problem... there are no problems... are there? Everything is fiiiiinnnnnnnnne...... just take the Blue Pill.....

Saturday, June 03, 2006

How now, Red Mao?

Show of Shirts
Kathmandu, Nepal

No, damnit...I didn't get it together to post the Maoist Rally photos from yesterday. Not yet. But I have a good reason (some kind of food poisoning). Tomorrow, I promise!

It was a day of firsts. The first show of public strength from the previously underground Maoist guerillas (and not a gun in sight). The first time the general public had ever trod upon the previously forbidden Tundikhel Parade Ground (there were so many people they broke through the fencing and spilled onto the grounds previously reserved for royalty and military).

AND, last and certainly least, it was my first time throwing up in the lobby of a five-star hotel (the Annapurna on Durbar Marg)! Well, I did manage to make it to the toilet (cupping my hand over my mouth) before spewing, but I think their marble floors got a splash of my bile.

MaoStock 2006
The Maoists' "Vishal JanSabha" (big people's meeting) was a remarkably mellow event (Mao-stock?). 200,000 people and no violence, unless you count the broken tree. A few dozen stupid young men climbed up into the branches of a Bodhi tree in order to get a better view, and finally the enormous branches gave way with a sickening crack, just a dozen feet from where I stood. (No one was hurt, except of course, the beautiful old tree which was literally split in half.)

Even the blue-camoed Nepali Police (formerly the Royal Guard) seemed very chilled out, lolling on the medians, all but snoozing on their riot shields. The weather was equally cooperative, providing a soothing cloud cover and a sprinkle of rain.

Red-shirted folks of all ages, many waving the hammer and sickle Red flag (remember that? wow, it's been a while. Almost makes you nostalgic) and other red-and-white banners of affiliated Communist groups, marched through the streets surrounding Tundikhel Parade Ground. In their varied facial features and ethnic dress, one could see the many different regions of Nepal. They were very orderly, very disciplined and if they were being co-erced to participate, did shout slogans very convincingly.

"We will burn the Crown and run the country,"

"Take the King from the Palace, and put him in a pig-sty"


"Long Live the Nepali Maoists Party; Death to bad king and bad government."

Hari, Niraula, Dinesh and other Nepali friends said that while the red-shirted brigades were volunteers and party members, most of the civilians came out of curiosity more than dedicated support. "Till now, the Maoists have been 'bhumi ghat,'" said Hari. "You know bhumi-ghat?"

Bhumi means the earth; a ghat is a set of steps leading downwards, usually to a riverside.

"Underground!" I said. Hari nodded. "So the people are wondering, who are these Maoists we hear about?"

Others who had been piled onto the buses from far-flung rural areas, were probably all too familiar with the People's Army. Hari said "Today, all bus fares to Kathmandu are free. The bus companies are supporting them." I wondered if their support was entirely voluntary. How could the peasants - because that's what they are, the working poor of rural Nepal - afford to spend even 2 days in the big city? The average country person cannot afford to take even one day off of work; many farmers live outside the cash economy. Dinesh said there were relief centres set up all over town and outlying areas, shelters where they would spend the night and be fed before returning to their villages. Again, I wondered where this money was coming from, as the Maoists are known to extort "donations" from foreign trekkers and local businesses - perhaps local food suppliers had also "donated," willingly or otherwise, the raw materials and shelter to feed the followers.

In other words, this was not a spontaneous people's uprising of the lumpen proletariat, but a carefully stage-managed and organized mass photo-op. And a very cohesive one. Five thousand red-shirted volunteers directed traffic, manned first aid stations and distributed pure drinking water for the participants and spectators.

People were piled onto every conceivable surface including the roofs of nearby buildings, fence railings, the pedestrian "flyover" bridges, vans, flatbed carriers and tall water tanker trucks (where Hari and I perched to get a better view). Though the enclosed parade grounds and amphitheatre were packed to the gills, I could see that many of the old political statues had been draped in red flags; a bronze equestrian national hero was carrying the Hammer and Sickle banner.

For some, especially the teenagers, it seemed to be just a big national shindig. Besides, why not come to the rally - most businesses were closed for the day and public transport wasn't running, anyway!

Lost in Translation
At 1.30 pm, Hari had to go to work, actually his second job. He now moonlights in order to bring in more money for his wife (a schoolteacher) and two-year-old son. So I lost my translator and had to make my way through man-on-the-street interviews looking for those who "looked like" they spoke English (you can actually do this with a fair degree of accuracy - they tend to be younger, wearing mod clothes with a college style).

The men and women on the street I spoke to expressed cautious optimism about the Maoists. They still seem a bit giddy from the newfound freedom and tumultuous events of the past 2 months. When asked "do you support the Maoists?" most said things like social worker Niraula: "Not 100 percent...maybe 80 per cent. But we want change, we want democracy. We want to see what they have to offer." No one expressed an interest in return to monarchy, and the Seven Party Alliance doesn't seem to have much credibility. At best, they are seen as the lesser of evils. The SPA (some of whom were known to be corrupt career politicians when previously in power) have a long way to go before they could pull off an impressive demo like this one. From what I have read, they did have a demo a few weeks ago and the turnout was about half this size.

The general public just seem to be willing to give anything a try - anything new and different. Willingness, or a sense of fatalism inevitability? No one seemed to question the coming ascendancy of the Maoists. Whether this was truly acceptance or resignation is another question.

Over and over, I was told by onlookers, "We want peace. We want only peace."

It didn't bode well, though, that few wanted to be named and many were afraid of having their photos taken. Several party members asked Hari if I (conspicuous white lady with a camera) was a human rights worker. He answered, "No, she is just a guest at our hotel who is curious." True enough, but I had to wonder what they had to fear from even a hypothetical human rights worker?

The electric anticipation gave way to a bit of disappointment as it became evident that the Main Mao Man, Prachanda, Soul Brother #1, was not going to appear in person. Nor was Dr Baburam Bhattarai, Soul Brother #2. We did get an appearance and speech by Krishna Bahadur Mahara, another key party member, as well as numerous cultural performances by various groups from the many regions of Nepal. Most surprising to me was the participation of Tibetan folk dancers and lamas with long-horns and yellow ritual hats. You would think the Tibetans, of all people, would intensely distrust the Communists!

Not if or when, but how now
Long story short: The Maoists may not have the hearts and minds of the Nepali public as completely as they claim, but they are a very real force, are very organized and are ready - they claim - to enter mainstream politics and merge their People's army with that of the Nepali government. It is no longer a question of if or when, but how and to what extent. It was around these questions that the day's speeches revolved.

Since I had no translator and was unable to understand the speeches in Nepali, here is an excellent account of the day and commentary on the speeches by a Kathmandu native, fellow blogger Zade 16.

It seems to be a given, to laypersons I spoke with, that the Maoists will dominate the new Parliament. The Maoists are now calling for the dissolution of the current one - the Parliament reinstated by the King last month - as, they claim, any body appointed by the King is no longer valid.

The collective energy began to dwindle around 4pm. Some of the less committed spectators began to wander away down side streets, to enjoy the rest of their enforced holiday. I spotted a trim young man with glasses, camera and United We Blog t-shirt. It turned out to be Dinesh Wagle of United We Blog Nepal. We had been emailing for the past 5 months and I was hoping to catch up with him on this visit. Dinesh was photographing his friend James, an independent American journalist who's lived in Nepal for 30 years.

James, an independent American writer who's lived in Nepal for 30 years, was trying to pull down a Prachanda poster as a souvenir.

"I really want the red t-shirt," I said.

"Nope, they won't let go of the t-shirt OR the headband - I already tried!" James shook his head. American minds think alike.

Gut Feelings
At that moment, I had a biological attack, and had to run for it. Some kind of mystery bug had me puking up all the water and soda I had ingested during the hot day's activities. I spent today recuperating and hope to get the photos posted by tomorrow.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Red Rain

A busted bus and lots of dust
Kathmandu, Nepal
via Haldwani, Banbassa, Mahendranagar, Kolapuri, Butwal, Manikamana, Mugling, Dadhing & Narayanghat


Note to self: do NOT, repeat not, take a bus ride across the Terai (flat lowland plains of Nepal) in pre-monsoon season. Unless you want to melt into your seat! I really thought there would be nothing left of me but a puddle on the grimy bus floor and at every stop I had to soak my chunni (scarf) in cold water and wrap it around my head like a coolie, to prevent my brain from exploding. I must have looked like a total dork (white lady with a dripping towel wrapped turban-style on her head, dripping down her shirt and face) but I so did not care. I was sweating so profusely I finally had to remove my glasses (they wouldn't stay on my face) so I could only marginally enjoy the wonderful scenery that begins at Narayanghat - green jagged hills and deep river gorges, hills covered with terraced rice paddies like giant emerald steps.

Well, Border Crossing #3 was an experiment. I'll never have to do it again. Next time I will go via the more common Bhairava/Senauli border crossing. Never in my life have I been so glad to see rain as I was in, oh what was the name of that little village where we stopped to fix the flat tire? As all the other bus passengers were shutting their windows against the rain I was cheering for joy and sticking my head out the window.

Riding across the Terai did give me a chance to see (even without my glasses) some of the changes in the emerging democracy. A half hour after departing the Immigration post (just a little concrete cinder block box that says "Tourist Information" - you would never know it was a govt. office - I realized something had been missing from the walls inside - the mandatory portraits of King Gyanendra and Queen Komal. These 2 are (or were) everywhere in Nepal, from the smallest juice shop to the biggest 5 star hotel, peering down at you like overweening parents. No more.

At the whistle-stop village where we paused to repair the busted tyre I wandered over to the snack stand, where everything is still made on beautful wood-fired clay ovens. There were Maoist posters with the face of leader Prachanda, advertising the big "Jana Sabha" (meeting of the people) tomorrow in Kathmandu. I knew what the posters said but played dumb and asked the hotel owner. "Maoist," he said. " The Maoists have put this poster." It was obvious from his tone that he would never have put it up himself, and was only keeping it out of fear. I began to see this poster everywhere.

At Narayanghat, clean-cut, energetic young men in red t-shirts (with the same Prachanda portrait) and carrying megaphones clambered aboard the bus and spoke authoritatively to the driver. Soon half a dozen civilian young men got on board, without, I noticed, paying any fare.
This happened at every stop between Narayanghat and Kathmandu, and I soon realized they were sending delegates and followers to tomorrow's meeting in Kathmandu (commandeering the bus free of charge). At the dinner stop, I saw buses packed with dozens of men riding on the rooftops, red flags waving from the bus's prow.

Everyone in town seems to be expecting something momentous from this meeting today in Tundikhel. My favourite hotel waiter Hari has agreed to go with me as translator, and I have to go get ready and meet him now. My camera is acting up (again!) so I don't know what photos I will be able to get but I will do my best. There should be at least 50 to 100,000 people there.

More later,
Caroline, back in Kathmandoooo!