Monday, July 31, 2006

Snake dance

Song of the Serpent
Kathmandu, Nepal

I woke up this morning to the sound of the usual bicycle bells, newspaper hawkers, metal shop gates rattling open and something special - the foghorn-sound of a conch shell and accompanying twinkle of a brass puja bell. I stuck my head outside the window to see two men moving down the street, ringing the bell and blowing the shell in front of each store. (Of course, they then wanted an "offering" for this service.)

Today is Naag Panchami, the Nepali day to honour the Nagas or Snake Deities. Nagas represent the earth-spirits, spirits of the land of Nepal. Legend has it that long before the Hindu gods, the Buddha, or any mortal beings set foot here, this was the Nagas' land. Kathmandu Valley was a big lake of water-dwelling amphibious serpents.

Naag Panchami is mostly celebrated by Hindus, but there is a Buddhist legend about the Nagas as well. When the Buddhist saint Manjushree stood atop Swayambhu hill that emerged from the water like a lighthouse, he struck his mighty sword and cleaved the lake in two, draining it and forming what's now the Valley. But he had to promise the Nagas we would always honour and worship them, because we took their land.

So even at the Hindu and Buddhist shrines here, and in front of every hotel or business (however modern, air-conditioned and slick it may appear), there is an icon of entwined serpents emerging from the water. At the temples it is carved in stone. On modern buildings, it's just a mass-produced colour linotype of the serpents dancing above the water, or sometimes a Naga (snake maiden) holding one serpent in each hand. A Hindu version shows Lord Krishna's conquest of the snake-demon Kalinga (has nothing to do with the legend, but whatever).

So people blow conch shells, rang handbells, waved oil lamps and offered special rice and red powder to the snakes. Then they tack up a fresh new snake-picture over every door. Gotta keep the earth spirits happy.

At Naag Pokhari, a sort of ancient pond in the middle of the city, there is an ornate brass column topped by Nagas, arising from the murky green water. For the past three days there has been a special Naag Panchami street fair. Nothing particularly snakey about it, but it's the thought that counts.

It reminds me of that great Simpsons episode in which Lisa, ever the animal rights activist, manages to convert Snake-Bashing Day into the Be Nice to Snakes Day, with Barry White singing "Leave the snakes alooonnneee, babyyyyy..... leave allllllll...the snaaakessssssssssss...alone..."

Friday, July 28, 2006

The Little Buddha

Kathmandu, Nepal

Wednesday was the beginning of nearly a week's ceremonies marking the enthronement of a newly incarnated Rinpoche, or Tibetan lama. Tharik Rinpoche is only six years old and so small, he has to be lifted up to bless the ritual mandalas in the prayer hall. I have to be up very early for the start of the enthronement ceremonies in Boudhanath tomorrow morning. Here are a few photos from Wednesday's arrival, by Rene Edde.

It takes uncountable lifetimes to become a tulku, or incarnate lama. Tharik Rinpoche (who was born in Himachal Pradesh, India) has been a Buddhist lama in his seven previous lifetimes, including, my printed invitation tells me, one lifetime as a female lama. His previous incarnation "left his body" in 1998 and the Sakya lineage community is thrilled to have "found" him again.

Monday, July 24, 2006


Wheeee! I'm just so happy to upload photos again, I have to share a bunch with you.

Rajdhani Express Train from Madras to Delhi, March 2006

GandhiNagar, Madras, Tamil Nadu, February 2006

Sikh women reading Grantha Sahib at Ram Rai Darbar, Dehra Dun, May 2006

Nap time in Mylapore, March 2006

Bowl of water lilies and marigolds, Mylapore, Madras, March 2006

Blindfolded nuns parcipating in Kalachakra Initiation, Andhra Pradesh, January 2006

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Greatest hits, near misses

Big hits and fazed cookies
Kathmandu, Nepal

Dear Sports Fans and Loyal Readers:

Greetings from the monsoon-cloud-shrouded insurgency-wracked landlocked middle kingdom -slash-modern democracy Nepal!

Please assist me if you will. I'm trying to hone down some of the voluminous typing (not sure it always deserves the term "writing") of the past few years to make a "Greatest Hits" sidebar, and possibly edit a future compilation.

If you have a minute to reflect (or just a few hours to kill while your supervisor is out of the office), please let me know which (if any!) of the blog entries or Trekshare pieces and photos you have enjoyed the most, or found the most useful. Also mentioning things you found annoying, or just mediocre, is helpful.

You need not page through and wade among all the stuff...but if you remember something cool just drop me a Comment or email.
Thanks for giving feedback over the years (gosh, has it been years now? It has!). Thanks for taking the time to write, and help me weed through the unruly garden.

the Siren of Shangri-La

Friday, July 21, 2006

No direction home

Refugee Nation
Kathmandu, Nepal

Everyone knows about the Tibetan refugees; they are very high-profile and have a dramatic, romantic story. Tibetans
are still coming over the mountains - still escaping Chinese occupied Tibet. But probably 20% of the city of Kathmandu - maybe more - are some kind of refugee.

Besides the Tibetans, there are several
Bhutanese Refugee camps here in town. Meant to be temporary, like all such camps, the Bhutanese have been there nearly 16 years. King Wangchuk, an absolute if otherwise somewhat enlightened monarch in the neighboring mountain kingdom, kicked out lots of ethnic Nepalis who had been born and raised there (they were demanding things like "rights") in the early 1990s. The UN Human Rights Commission is here investigating the Bhutanese refugee camps this week; yesterday a bunch of protesting Bhutanis were arrested in front of the SAARC Secretariat.

Then there are Biharis - refugees from comparatively prosperous neighbor I
ndia. Ordinarily Nepalis go south to find work in India. There are some 1 million Nepalis working there now, largely as waiters or hotel staff; the stereotypical Nepali diaspora job is that of security guard ("bahadurs" - a Nepali word meaning courageous). These reverse Indian migrants are fleeing the state of Bihar, notorious for its poverty, violence and corruption. With their distinctive Indian features - prominent noses, enormous bushy moustaches, large, liquid eyes and unsmiling faces giving them a somewhat doleful look - they are easily spotted selling fruit from large bicycle baskets all over town. Every time I buy fruit, I ask them "what is your native place?" So far, they have all answered "Bihar." They are thrilled that I even know one or two cities in their state and that I have ridden through it, however briefly, on the train.

Yet another category of Indian refugee comes from Kashmir. Theirs is a diaspora of long standing. The Kashmiri conflict needs little introduction; because of it, green-eyed, fair-skinned Kashmiri men (known as much for their butter-tongued salesmanship as for their good looks) can be found in curio shops from Ladakh to Kerala. I would imagine the Kashimiri diaspora accounts for a good percentage of Nepal's very small Muslim minority.

Where are the Kashmiri or Bihari women who must have accompanied their men? Do they stay at home in purdah (Muslim seclusion of women), or tending children? or did they stay behind, leaving the men to dream of a day when they could earn enough money to return home and marry? A few days ago, I saw two tall, thin women dressed in the unmistakeable style of far northern India. Punjabi suit with churidhar pants, chunri (long scarf) pulled over the hair, no bindi on the forehead - that means, she's Muslim. The younger one could have been my sister, her features were so Caucasian. They were so exotic in these surroundings, I sprinted to catch up to them. "Place you are coming from?" I asked breathlessly. The elder one couldn't understand. "Kashmir," said the younger girl; "you are from?" "America."

The ladies were carrying water in what looked like old-fashioned plastic gasoline jugs, the kind with a handle on one side. Since there is no running water near their tiny flat, she told me they go to fetch water from a public tap some four times a day. They trudged up the sidewalk with the plastic jugs perched on one shoulder, heads held high.

Internal Affairs

Then there are the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) - those who've been flooding Kathmandu escaping the Maoist/RNA conflict in their villages for the last few years. The Kathmandu population has mushroomed recently, mostly young men fearing recruitment or death at the hands of either army. Many young women have fled as well. Some find gainful employment; some are driven to dance in the many strip bars in the tourist district; some turn to either outright prostitution or a "softer" kind involving a relatively wealthy city man or "foreign gentleman" they have met during their migration.

Still more Nepalis are just fleeing poverty and lack of opportunity in their rural districts, armed conflict or no. Maya is here with her 2 daughters and sick husband. The husband has TB and is just sort of acknowledged to be terminal. There is treatment for TB, but they seem to have accepted that he is dying. The husband just lies in bed all day (all he can do) while Maya and her daughters do a sort of hybrid job in Thamel, alternately selling small pocketbooks (the kind tourists use as money pouches) and when that fails, begging. Maya buys the bags wholesale for about 30NRs each and sell them for whatever they can get. If the tourist looks rich, they start at 500NRs (about $8.00). However, they will part with the bag for as little as 50NRs. The same bags are for sale in every single shop in Nepal; often for much better prices, but Maya and girls are counting on pity and immediacy (being in your face on the street, that is). I wonder to myself whether she purposely doesn't wash her girls properly for this reason.

Maya came here from Pokhara, the centrally located lake town, seeking treatment for her husband. They seem to have forgotten about that now and just accepted that he's dying. While we were talking to her, Maya started crying and said "I just wish someone would take her" (the baby) "back to America."

And of course, there are the expats...not tourists, but lifers. Foreigners who came for a season and stayed. They're all running from something - many seem to be running from conventional ideas of prosperity and all its confining trappings, as our Nepali neighbors are hoping to run toward them. They ran to a place where the human touch still counts, everything is not yet mass produced, and you can still ride a bicycle to work without getting run down by SUVs.

Most foreigners are involved in one or more charities, projects or volunteer work; like Renate, the Dutch Nepali resident and owner of the posh restaurant 1905 Kantipath. Renate is deliriously busy not only running his business, but with myriad projects and homegrown, small-scale charities which emphasize training and education.

Unlike India, the locals here don't seem to consider you "stupid" for wanting to help. And a heartening number of projects seem to do long-term, sustainable good.

I met Rachael as she was taping up

hand-written posters to the notice board of the posh Kathmandu Guest House. Rachael is a very low-budget traveller here from New Zealand. "I hope you don't mind eating here," she said quietly as we ducked into a dark, smelly local lunch joint where flies buzzed around the food counter. It turned out to be too dirty even for her, and we ate elsewhere. Her guest house is 150 NRs a day (about $2.00 US) and only has hot water from 8-10 in the morning. Rachael is trying to raise money for "her" family in the Langtang region. She met them while trekking, spent time with them and got to know their situation intimately. Rachael wants to collect $100 US to repair their leaking roof (especially now that it is monsoon) and is in the city collecting it - 100 NRs (that's about $1.50) at a time. Her sunspotted skin, worn out sandals and frequently stitched and re-stitched pants showed that she spent no money on herself.

If she can buy a sheet of corrugated tin, Rachael can take it up to Langtang, tied onto the roof of a bus. (Anything and everything can be tied onto the roof of a bus here - I've seen full-sized sofas transported this way. It was amazing to see the men get it up there; but then, this is a land where five-foot men carry full-sized fridges on their backs.) From there, she will have to hire local men to carry it up to the family house. She's also collecting money to build a wall that will protect the family's apple orchard seedlings from the local deer, goats and pigs.

With $150 US, the family can buy a water buffalo, which will enable them to start a small-scale dairy business providing yogurt and milk to their neighbors.

Everyone gets involved, everyone has a project. No one, it seems, "belongs" here. Therefore, we all do. It's strangely liberating, and creates an environment in which anyone can fit in. Politicized enough to be relevant, romantic enough to be picturesque, bohemian enough to be accepting, and very international - a slice of Manhattan's 1980s East Village transplanted to a rain soaked mountain kingdom - Whoops! kingdom-slash-modern democratic republic... in the monsoon clouds.

Vote for meeeeee!

Go to this URL and give me a #5 rating:

Then page down to the following 2 photos and do the same! has selected not one, not two, but three of my Nepal photos in a row as their photos of the day.

They have a shot at being photos of the year, in which case I will win $200 US. (Hey, I can live on that for nearly a month here.)

What are you waiting for? Get clickin!

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Dude, where's my Blog?

Democracy Inaction
Location: Indian Blogosphere

"Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel" - some cool dude

"The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing" - Edmund Burke

Report: Indian gov blocks Blogspot, Typepad, Geocities blogs
Reprinted from BoingBoing (thanks guys and gals)
India's Department of Telecommunications (DoT) passed an order to ISPs Friday to block several websites. The list is confidential. Indian ISPs have been slowly coming into compliance. SpectraNet, MTNL, Reliance, and as of Monday afternoon, Airtel. State-backed BSNL and VSNL have not started yet but likely will soon. The known list of blocked domains is *, * and*.

Yes folks, the Indian government has decided to censor blogs and refused to explain why. This morning Shivam Vij managed to talk to Dr Gulshan Rai, director of CERT-IN, the only body authorised to issue directives to ISPs. His response: "Somebody must have asked for some sites to be blocked. What is your problem?"

If any Boing Boing readers in India find several sites inaccessible today, please call your ISP and demand to know why. If you can help, please join the coordinating group: Link.

Link to Shivam's post, and Jace is following developments on his blog, here.

Manish adds,

The block is still spreading through Indian ISPs. This recalls Pakistan's Blogspot ban during the Danish cartoon controversy and India's Yahoo Groups ban in '03 to shut down a separatist forum.
Dina Mehta says,
The plot gets thicker and thicker as more bloggers are getting alerted to the fact that an increasing number of Indian ISP's are banning blogspot and typepad blogs and Several detailed posts on this, with regular updates here:, Conversations with Dina, and Travel Tales from India.

There's a wiki here: Link. We're treading with a little caution before we go whole-hog at the government. There is a possibility that it is a mistake - where a directive from the government on a few blogs might have been misrepresented by ISP's here - who have blocked the entire sites.

Amit Varma says,
Amit Agarwal has some tips on how Indian bloggers can circumvent the ban on Blogspot here: Link. More here: Link.
Update, 11AM PT: Shii says,
An Indian political blog is reporting that the ban was initiated by the Indian intelligence service to stop terrorism: Link. According totheir source, the terrorists are using blogs to communicate. Not only is this useless (because the terrorists can simply use proxies), it's akin to shutting off the country's telephone service because terrorists talk to each other through phones.
Jim says,
Indian Censorship can easily be bypassed when using TorPark. It's a no-install version of Firefox that uses the Tor Network for communication. This should also work in China and other countries that filter the web.
And of course, this and many other censorship workarounds at BoingBoing's "How to Defeat Censorware."

Vijay says,

I am not yet facing any of the blocking effects as reported by several Indian bloggers. I have noticed a certain pattern here. The blocking seems to be affecting city users while rural netizens have been spared of this curb for now. I have mentioned this in detail here.
Special thanks to Double T of Black Cats Manor, Chattanooga, Tennessee, USA.

Monday, July 17, 2006


The Big Rot Candy Mountain
Kathmandu, Nepal


The KMC (Kathmandu Municipal Corporation) sanitation workers have been on strike here for over a week, and the city is trashed. Living in Asia, I am accustomed to a high level of street debris and smells (everyone knows Singapore does not count as Asia). But even I am not used to climbing over literal mounds of decomposing trash, sodden in the monsoon rains.

The mountains of garbage - paper, burlap sacks, rotting fruit hulls, wrung-out sugarcane used to make juices, plastic bags holding moisture, spent corn cobs, banana peels, newspapers and so on - are now large enough to block traffic on the already congested city streets. Yesterday Floriane and I were walking back from Patan to New Road and traffic was at a complete standstill. We squeezed in between piled-up cycle rickshaws, taxis, motorbikes, scooters and mini-buses on roads that in any other part of the world would be considered alleys. Of course everyone has to honk, as though some obstinate person at the front of the queue is willfully holding up everyone else...and as though honking would do any good whatsoever. Normally cows, goats and street dogs take care of the overflow of organic trash, but there isn't enough livestock in the city to make a dent in all this rot.

Mosquitoes are having a field day breeding in among all the piled-up rot and my entire backside is covered in red welts.

Use and Throw
If you have never lived in Asia, you don't know trash. For one thing, there are few, if any, garbage cans on the road here. The local habit is just to "use and throw" - drink your juice, eat your candy bar, and toss the wrapper down at your feet without a second thought. In fact, if you consume your drink at the shop and ask the shopowner "where can
I toss this garbage?" they will often instruct you to throw it right in the street (the phrase is "use and throw"). Most of them don't keep garbage cans. Those that do normally just toss their own garbage can's contents right into the street at night, anyway.

So garbage gets tossed into the tiny gutter, which is just a foot or 2 away from your sandalled feet, or right onto the street itself. Most streets don't have proper sidewalks ("footpaths"), with the result that you are constantly dodging garbage.

Trash: from the ground up
Here in Nepal, the Sanitation Department does not arrive in huge, roaring, dinos
aur-like trucks with hydraulic lifts on the back. Since there are no garbage trucks, there are no dumpsters or garbage bins.

In Thamel, garbage removal begins with the street sweepers. This is one of the lowest castes in Hindu society (slightly above the sewer-divers, latrine-cleaners, butchers, and those who dispose of corpses). They are employed by the city at the rate (in India) of about 100 IRs a day - that's about $2.25.

The sweepers come out after dusk and, stooping low over the broken pavement, push the accumulated gutter garbage into neat piles. A Westerner would not recognize their working equipment for what they are - brooms. To us, these brooms look like little bundles of stiff straw, sort of like uncooked spaghetti sticks wrapped in a bunch about 2 feet long and tied with a piece of twine. There is no handle, so the sweepers must bend double over the ground and have their faces in the dirt and dust for hours. They generally don't wear masks or scarves to protect their faces from the filth. Older sweepers' backs are permanently crooked.

If you were to give them a Western broom with a long handle, which would not only enable them to stand upright and save their backs, but would give them leverage and enable them to work more efficiently, they would sell them to someone and return to their familiar whisk broom. This is what they prefer. (In the 60s, one Peace Corps project became legendary among anthropologists. To enable subsistence farmers (can't remember where) to both work more quickly, and save their spines, the Peace Corps workers gave them long-handled hoes for tilling. The villagers promptly chopped the long handles off the farming implements and went back to bending double over the ground.)

Miles of piles - Recycling, Asian style
The next phase in urban sanitation are the rag pickers. This occupation covers all genders, ages and even species. Humans, dogs, cows, crows, cats, and goats all join in nosing and picking through the accumulated rubbish in search of various kinds of morsels. Most rag-pickers, however, seem to be women with young children. It's not often that you see an adult male ragpicking.

Some ragpickers work at night, but mostly I see them first thing in the morning- probably for better visibility. Popular items with humans seem to be plastic water and soda bottles, and re-useable plastic bags. I think they can re-sell them somewhere. In India, there are entire shops devoted to buying and selling old newspaper by the pound. Cows are fond of used corn cobs and banana peels. Dogs naturally concentrate in areas round the butcher shops. They are all working a bit frantically - to try and beat 1) each other - competing groups of scavengers, and 2) - the Garbage truck.

The garbage truck, in Thamel, is a guy on an ordinary push bicycle that has a large wire bin attached on back. Sort of like an ice cream vendor in reverse, he scoops up the piles (using seemingly nothing - maybe a piece of cardboard and his hands) and dumps them into his wire bin till it's full.

In areas with more modern, wide-open streets, the garbage truck is a weird sort of three-wheeler hybrid between a go-kart, a flatbed truck, and a tractor. I wish I could upload a photo for you. This contraption is usually peopled by 3 men, and for some reason, has handlebars rather than a steering wheel. The 2 guys on back scoop up the wet piles of muck onto the flatbed with maximum roaring of engines and blocking of traffic.

In that way, I guess it has a lot in common with Western, more sophisticated garbage trucks.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Close call

In harm's way
Guest blog from Mumbai, India

My friend and fellow Blogger
Shinu (the Mumbai Marauder) was three cars away from one of the bombs on the rush-hour commuter trains in Mumbai (Bombay) on July 11. Here are his letters detailing the experience. You can see photos here at his Blog.

Warning: the images are gruesome. People have criticized Shinu for even taking the photos, but I feel that real-life photos of these situations bring home the reality of what happens when fear and hatred take over hearts and minds.

It was a close call. Literally. I was in the 7th coach of the a ill-fated (Matunga Blast) train. The blast occured in 4th coach! In fact, the 4th coach is my regular one - it was a phone call that saved me!

I was late reaching the platform, and upon seeing the train ready to leave, just jumped into the nearest available coach. After leaving Dadar, I heard a loud sound, and a metal-scraping-on-metal sound. First, I thought someone is setting off crackers (fireworks). Then the overhead wire fell to the side of the train. People were jumping from the moving train.

All this happened in 50 seconds. I shouted "Don't Panic" but no one was listening. Then my friend came up to me, told me that the overhead wires broke and get down as fast as possible or there will be danger. Got down, looked ahead and saw a coach is completely tore open! At that moment, I thought the engine might have blew up. So sensing a scoop, I grabbed my camera (I was carrying it in my bag) gave the bag to the friend, ran towards the damaged coach.

Once there, I regretted my decision. I didn't recognise it at first. It was so eerie. Dead bodies, blackened from the blast, piled upon each other. Then all came into focus. A half-dead man raised his head from between two dead bodies, and looking at me. I didn't think of anything. It was an exclusive shot. After some 18 frames, I feel like throwing up. So I moved away from the scene.

By then, most of the alive transferred to hospitals by alert fellow passengers and locals. The police and help arrived after 45 minutes of the blast!!! All networks jammed, traffic brought to a standstill, blood and flesh scattered across the tracks, those who were standing on the doorway flew a few meters from the power of the blast and their bodies mutilated beyond recognition, a headless torso lying in the tracks, severed limbs scattered around....

Will get back once my mind is cleared. I still can't believe I am alive and in shock. I want to cry.

Shinu Mathew

Here's a letter from another Mumbaikar friend, Aadil, about his experience after the blasts:

I just returned home after trying to go to work in the night shift but the trains on the Western Railway were not running after the blasts and the roads were blocked totally so nothing moving at all. All traffic was just waiting for hours on end with not even a crawling movement visible. People were waiting outside their vehicles for hours. Sadly returned home and am now online. About 137 people have died (Ed. note: it's now 200) and many more injured in the 8 blasts that took place all on the Western Railway all over Mumbai city. Women are being accomodated in school halls and public are out on the roads giving biscuits and water to people stranded on the roads in their cars.

May peace prevail and those injured get well soon, sad to hear about the loss of lives and courage to those who lost their near and dear ones. Just wish this crazy violence would stop someday soon.

Photos by Shinu Mathew used courtesy Jagraan TV, Mumbai, India.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Not in the hot zone

Not having a blast
Kathmandu, Nepal

Hi everyone, just dropping a line to say I have been unable to connect via the laptop for several days here. I'm not too worried, no one else could have finally made my way to the rickety cyber cafe.

Also letting everyone know that, though there were tragic bomb blasts in both Kashmir and Bombay today, I was nowhere near either. (I am lucky enough to have people worry about me every time a bomb goes off anywhere in South Asia. That's a good thing.)

So far, 200 people are said to have died in Bombay; and at least 7 people including some tourists died in Kashmir in five separate, synchronized explosions. The reports I've read say they believe these attacks - occurring in two very distant cities - were related. You can read the full stories here, but these links will be outdated in a few hours: Blasts hit Bombay commuter trains Five tourists killed in Srinagar attacks

Happy Birthday to Who?

Biggest news here was that the King's birthday wasn't. That is, it was not a holiday, for the first time ever in the history of
Nepali government. They had a celebration at the palace and even a 21-gun salute, but the government offices, schools and so on stayed closed. This is big news.

Strangely, it was July 7, the day following the Dalai Lama's birthday. Even more strange, the Dalai Lama and George W. Bush share the same birthday. (Eleven years apart, but still.)

What really pissed me off was waking up the next morning seeing photos in the paper of *civilians* lined up to come inside the Palace and greet the King. The Palace! Inside! you mean, if we had KNOWN about it we could have gone and met one of the very last sitting monarchs in the world?!?! Now I've lost all my sympathy for the newly liberated Nepali press. What good are they if they can't give me advance notice of such photo opps?

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Live music fusion with sunny terrace

Buddha Bar
Kathmandu, Nepal

Or so says the sandwich board outside my favourite WiFi spot. Kathmandu is a good a place as any to be stuck with an illness; it's international enough in population and cuisine that on any given day, you feel at the crossroads of Asia, and indeed the world.

A small but steady trickle of tourists come through daily. Guest houses offer fifty percent discounts at this rainy time of year, and trekking is sometimes limited by the weather (the clouds obscure higher snowy peaks). Even though I don't feel like much movement, it's rarely boring; there are world travellers each with their own story, adventures, itinerary and interests showing up every day.

I have some new travelling companions. Ming, a Malaysian working in London; Florienne, a Belgian woman who's travelled here to study the lives of working Nepali women for three months; Kit, Ming's friend from London, and Dave, a hardy Australian who just biked (yes, an old fashioned bike...not a motorbike) from Chengdu to Lhasa, then from Lhasa to the Nepali border. Yes, his butt is very, very sore. (He preferred to stand rather than sit on the hard metal bench the other day.)

In my recuperating state, I am just a headline away from history-making events. The Nepali Prime Minister, 85-year-old Girija Koirala, just returned from a getting life-saving medical procedure in Bangkok (that would be SO like Nepal - for him to die right now and leave the Democratic parties without what little leadership they have). Maoist "supremo" Prachanda talks a good plan in the papers - no more enforced collection of "donations," no more commandeering the excise offices (in many areas the Maoists are the government, and have taken over commercial offices, even requisitioning materials from contractors, and accepting bids on public works projects). In spite of this, the papers carry daily reports of abductions by the guerillas and continued extortion of funds - most famously from Chitwan National Park, Nepal's Yellowstone. (The Maoists in that area reportedly demanded 50 million Nepali rupees revenue from the park, a wildlife refuge for endangered species such as rhin0.)

Prachanda also requested that his comrades cease holding "People's Courts" (aka kangaroo courts) - but only in "the large towns and cities." So it's okay to have guerilla justice in the remote areas, I guess. Yesterday I read an account of a man, appointed mayor of a small town by the royal regime, who had been humiliated, tarred and feathered, lead around the village, and forced to renounce his office. (He was rather elderly; still they forced him to do 10 sit-ups in penance for his sins.) Who knows, maybe this geezer was a corrupt bastard who had terrorized innocent people, but the precedent of ad-hoc justice is unsavoury.

The majority would really like to give the Parties a chance, but the democratic forces are lacking unified leadership and a strong "face." (Sound familiar, American Democrats?) The Maoists have Prachanda & Co. with their snazzy red shirts and slogans. The few remaining royalists (mostly a bunch of withered old men) have the King, who is hiding out in the palace these days and hasn't peeked out for a month, literally. But the Parties have only GP Koirala, who as much as admits he is on his way off of this mortal coil. In an interview last week he listed restoration of peaceful and effective democracy at the top of his to-do list, "before taking retirement from this life."

The million mutinies continue. Many ethnic groups are now demanding various levels of autonomy and regional independence, most notably the Tharu in the Terai or flatlands bordering India. They don't seem to trust that they will be properly represented in a new federal government. I personally feel that some level of regional autonomy within a greater Nepal would be welcome, considering how alienated the villages have always been from the Centre. Complete independence, however, would further fragment the country; as the famous "yam between two boulders" - a tiny nation sandwiched between the giants China and India - they need to remain unified.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

A million mutinies now

" get my fair share of abuse...."
Kathmandu, Nepal

"Do you go to the riots?"
"Nah, just one to get a few photos of burning tyres was enough.
"Oh, well I was thinking of going tomorrow, just to say I'd been you know...."

This was common c
offee house conversation last fall, when planned altercations between college students, political parties (not sure I want to call them all activists, some are just opportunists) and the police were routine in Kathmandu. Naturally, they were not intended to be riots, but demonstrations. As often as not, someone would overreact, and violencet would ensue...and a peaceful demo became a riot.

Usually these occurred in very prescribed locations (Maiti Ghar, areas of New Road) and were easily avoided; sometimes even announced thoughtfully in advance in the papers ("the Seven Party Alliance will be staging an agitation tomorrow from 11am till afternoon; avoid driving in the area of....").

no longer as simple (if indeed it ever was) as The People vs. The Man in the Palace. Nepal is now host to its own Million Mutinies Now. There are women, long oppressed and woefully underrepresented in government, clambering over statues of ancient kings to demand their place in the new government. There are victims of Maoist violence as well as victims of police and army violence demanding restitution and justice. Bhutanese refugees gather in front of the UNHCR to protest the lack of clear policy on their status. Members of the traditionally "lower" castes (Dalit, Janajati) also hold sit-ins to draw attention to their need for representation in the New Nepal.

The feeling now, though, is different; there will be no more police opening fire on peac
eful demonstrators. Most of these protests are being done in the spirit of tolerance and newly-embraced free speech (previously, it was a crime punishable by imprisonment to criticize the king). The only exception I know of, sadly, was the pro-Hindu-theocracy, anti-secular agitation in Birganj. They seemed determined to stir up violence in the name of "protecting" Nepal's traditionally Hindu status. Since only elite members of the upper castes have truly benefitted from that status (the majority of Hindus are of lower castes and still experience discrimination in rural areas) this doesn't seem to have garnered much popular support. The Hindutva-type opportunists may not find the fertile soil here that they did in India; Nepal is a multi-faith country that has managed to never experience religious violence or ethnic conflict. (It's about 70 Hindu, 20-plus percent Buddhist, and the rest traditional animist/shamanist, with about 3% Muslim and Christian. Many families in the countryside practice both Buddhism or Hinduism along with their traditional shamanic faith).

For tourists who'd like to get in on a little of the activist action, today's protest is Tibetan refugees and their sympathizers protesting the new Chinese railway, which launches its maiden voyage today. It will link the farflung western regions (ie, Tibet) with Beijing, and undoubtedly lead to a flood of ethnic Han Chinese, further displacing the Tibetans.

I'm going to the Chinese embassy gates to catch what I can of today's regularly scheduled demonstration, then to a concert by Tibet's own "singing nun" Ani Choying Drolma.

Eye knew it....
Turns out that Lawrence & Mayo, the old and distinguished opticians who referred me to the old and distinguished (and faulty) opthalmologists Shroff Eye Center in Delhi, have been distributing a product (gave one to me) that has been under worldwide recall by the manufacturer since April this year.

Renu with Moistureloc has been shown to cause fungal keratitis (ie, corneal infection - sound familiar?) leading to partial blindness and necessitating corneal transplantation in over 30% of affected patients so far. The manufacturer recalled it months ago and there's a class action lawsuit. Yet here they are in the capital of India merrily handing it out with best wishes.

Someone should tell those protesting med students that if they lose a seat, they're really not missing out on much. When a Tennessee cracker with nothing but moxie and a Google search can show up the Indian doctors, it doesn't say much for their medical schools.