Monday, August 28, 2006

Back to Bhaktapur

Country roads
Kathmandu & Bhaktapur, Nepal

I'm recovering rapidly from the microorganic close encounter. I can't wait to get out of Kathmandu (charmingly chaotic as it is, it's also very polluted) and seek out some of the roads less travelled - especially now that the weather's cooling off.

One such road leads to Bhaktapur, a sort of medieval tantric city frozen in a time-warp. No electric signboards, no heavy vehicles within city limits, no blaring music from shoppe corners and no modern, concrete buildings. In fact, there are no buildings more than 4 stories or so high - it's in the local code.

Bhaktapur was designed in the shape of a semi-mandala with the Eight Mother Goddesses (ashtamatrikas) at various corners, protecting the city. A goddess temple is the centrepiece and heart of the city. This protection is ritually renewed every year with the elaborate cycle of festivals and observances for the various protector deities. The old gods live on in Bhaktapur.

There are no paved, blacktop roads - all the roads and narrow winding lanes are cobblestone and brick. Even the newer buildings are built according to traditional form. There is nothing like a supermarket or mall, only the open air market on the square, with vegetables, jeans and t-shirts being sold on the sunbaked brick. The over-30 generation stride by with dignity wearing their traditional red-and-black Pataasi saris and earsfull of gold button-like rings. For the men, topi, walking stick, and kurta-salwar are de rigeur.

Every house has "an old folk" sitting out front. I can't imagine these people putting their elders away in a home. Even up to a very ripe age, they are active and doing work inside the home as well as out in the market. Women sit in the sunshine knitting hats and sweaters, processing yarn on spinning wheels, sifting rice, sorting lentils. Men are often seen herding small bunches of goats or sheep with a stick...but the elder gents are usually just chit-chatting or enjoying a hukka pipe.

Just one hour from Kathmandu by local bus, the bricks of Bhaktapur just ooze old-world charm. Probably the teenagers who live there are terribly bored - there is certainly nothing more racy or modern than the local internet cafe, for them. Many of the young people are busy learning the traditional arts of thangka (Buddhist religious scroll) painting, intricate woodcarving, mask-making, brasswork, and crafting traditional musical instruments.

Bhaktapur is home to the Nepali and Newari traditional arts, all of which are entertwined with the religious beliefs of the area. The Kathmandu University School of Music makes its home there in a brick bungalow complex by the riverside at Chuping Ghat. Their gardens, though modest, would not look out of place in the south of France - that is, if there were Hindu temples and shrines in the middle of the French courtyards.

Here are just a few of the 100s of photos I took while in Bhaktapur during Gai Jatra.

Kathmandu Weather Report: Wonderfully cool mornings till about 10, humid afternoons usually with cloud cover; afternoon rainfall,;pleasant evenings (after 6pm). The mosquitos are mostly gone now.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The beauty of India

An orphan from Triplicane
Madras, Tamil Nadu, India

When I was in Madras (now called Chennai) this past February, I tracked down and took photos of all the street kids my friend Robert in California is helping. Actually, I didn't so much have to track them down as run from them. They got advance notice that the "dancing lady" was coming to town and from then on, I could barely escape them.

I had a few favourites, though, that I did not mind hanging out with. V. Prabhakaran, proprietor of Star Books, and his family were very cool. I especially loved Muniamman, an 80-plus elderly lady, a relative of VP's wife.

V Prabhakaran, though struggling himself like most Indians, manages to find time to help others, like the girl at right. This is a photo of Jennifer, who is essentially (not literally) an orphan.

As you can see, Jennifer is absolutely radiant, bordering on stunning. She has a total innocence that just shines from her.

Jennifer's real dad ran off and left the family. The mother then remarried, to a man who didn't care at all for Jennifer, only for his own kids that he was raising with the mom. They then sent Jennifer to a "home" (read: thinly veiled slave labour) where the girls are not treated or fed well, are worked too hard and are never given decent clothes.

Now, Jennifer is living safely with a good family. V. Prabhakaran and his wife, despite having a one year old son of their own, have taken Jennifer in. She sleeps on the concrete floor in their small 2-room flat in Triplicane. The last I heard, they had tried to start a cloth-selling business for Jennifer and she was learning to cut and sell "piece goods."

A "homely girl"
Often in such a situation, the girl is open to all kinds of exploitation from the hosts (forcing her to do housework; sexual come-ons from men in the family; use your imagination). But I have seen VP's house and family and I trust them.

They are looking for a nice boy to marry her. I think any guy would do well to marry her. Actually, I don't know of anyone who would be good and innocent enough for Jennifer.

Her father was a Christian, so Jennifer got a western name. (The fact that her name is not Indian made it Christian, at least to them. I didn't bother trying to explain that there is no Jennifer in the Bible.)

In Indian matrimonial ads, they describe a girl who likes to stay at home, cook, clean and be a traditional wife as a "homely girl." I wonder if they are using this word to describe Jennifer.

In sickness and in health

More scenes from the exciting life of a world traveller
Kathmandu, Nepal

Dear Friends:

Thanks for all the "get well" e-mails. I would love to answer them all but unfortunately, it takes all my energy now just to write one blog entry like this. I am so nauseous (side effect of Tinidazole), I can't be around food (have to force myself todrink tea. The doctor says no dairy products which cuts out a lot of my diet) and even walking around in this rainy season is a challenge, because everything smells.

The CIWEC Clinic
With all my illness, I have had plenty of opportunit
y to get to know the CIWEC Clinic. The atmosphere at CIWEC is very professional, almost yuppie. A sort of yuppie Peace Corps boutique. Their clinic complex would not look out of place in southern California... complete with SUVs in the lot. Their lab tech, Ramachandran, turns out to be one of the most respected parasitologists in the region. Anyone who's visited this region for an extended period knows the importance of identifying your intestinal beasties correctly.
Visit their web page at

Most of the foreign med students and doctors are like me - they came to Nepal years ago on a fluke and fell in love with it. Everyone falls in love with it. Then they went back home and rearranged their lives figuring out how to come back here and either get paid for it, stay on a student visa, or something. The visas here are much more restrictive than those given for India (more about that in another blog). The dentist, Dr Hollander, is a big, deep voiced gentle man from Oregon who has been coming to/living in Nepal for 25 years! He used to run the US Embassy dental clinic. He was so gentle administering novocaine, I only felt the first pinch (and this was a front tooth - very sensitive).

The other doctors here are equally impressive. The clinic director, Dr Pandey, a Nepali woman, went to Harvard. Contrary to my previous statement, there are, in fac
t, a number of Nepali doctors...all western trained (ie, very upper-crust). The receptionists and nurses are a combination of those living here on an employment visa, professionals who love Nepal and chose to come work here - and students who are doing summer internships.

If there is a specialty that CIWEC doesn't cover (like my eyes), CIWEC can recommend a good reliable doctor. The eye doctors they sent me to, Dr and Dr Malla, are Nepali husband and wife who were trained in the US. (At least one of them was.) None of the authoritarian "shut up and listen to me, you are the patient" of the Indian doctors. They were very caring. They actually called to check up on me. Unheard of for any doctor, anywhere, these days!

Life Styles of the Expats
A friend asked me whether the nurses and clinic staff stay in a hostel or special housing. I don't think so - I think they have nice flats on their own. This is not difficult to get here. Unlike India, they do not mind renting to foreigners and ads in the paper even say "priority foreigners" (which has got to be some kind of discrimination, really!) and "flat or bungalow suitable for foreigners;" meaning, it is nice and clean and
rything works.

Getting good help
For an average American, getting used to dealing with servants is a new experience. It is part and parcel of life in much of Asia, though. For those of us accustomed to doing everything ourselves - driving, cooking, cleaning and laundry - the social system with all its built-in middlemen (middlepersons?) takes a lot of getting used to. Often, thanks to the difference in language and work standards, it's just easier to do it yourself.

Most long-term expats, whether it is a doctor for the Embassy clinic or a teacher at the Lincoln School, has a maid or "didi"... if not a gardener, too. Lots of them are on near-US salaries so for them, to have a house with a gardener and maid for $200-300 a month is a steal. They think nothing of having a maid. It's a little weird for an American, or at least, for this American.

Therefore, when I talk about and compare maids, it doesn't mean I have struck it rich over here. Far from it. Maids, watchmen, hotel "boys" and so on are just part of even a budget traveller's life. One must learn to treat them with a careful balance of respect, friendliness and still maintain the elaborate role-playing that is all part of Asian life.

The maids in my hotel are always so good-natured and energetic, nothing like the shiftless In
dian maids who just barely push the dirt around with a broom. This is why Nepali help is so popular in India. As my Garhwali friend Laxmi said to me, "These people will work." Whether it is a physician, or a maid, or a bank teller, or a bus driver, many Indians seem to have decided long ago that they were just above working. Working is beneath them. They just exude this air of, "I really am too good to be here. Your job is an insult to me."

Punjabi Sikhs are a notable exception to this. They pride themselves on being ha
rd-working. No wonder many other Indians look down on them and make Polish-type jokes about them. How stupid, for someone to brag about working hard!

Also unlike India, landlords do not charge outrageous deposits on a rental house or flat. Amazing. The only place I have been in like this in India is Koregaon Park in Pune and, to an extent, McLeod Ganj. In India they want 10 months deposit up front. And, if you move out early you do NOT get it back (some deposit!). That's in addition to the ridiculous finder's fee you must pay someone.

Everything in India is designed to make improvement impossible. For real! This is a social-levelling mechanism to keep people in their place keep the peace by ensuring that no one gets ahead of anyone. My friend Robert discovered when he painted his friend's house in a Chennai slum. After seeing the nice new paint job, the landlord decided the house was now worth more money and that he should rent it to someone else. It's a real disincentive to improving things there - If you improve it, you could actually endanger yourself.

These places - Koregaon Park, McLeod Ganj, Kathmandu - interest me because they are welcoming to foreigners, but are still mixed. That is, you will see local people other than just the rich people's maids. Of course, there is some of that but there are also local students, professionals, business owners and so on. Nepali people go to the nightclubs and restaurants. It is not intensely segregated.

Compare and contrast: south of the border
India has a much heavier class system, and a greater population with about 70% belonging to the lower castes. Always in India, you get that feeling of fending off. People are constantly fending off the Hordes Outside. Everything from the bars on the windows to the watchman with his stick at the door of every decent shoppe or restaurant...everything says Fending Off. This is best illustrated in a situation like the train trip into Calcutta. As you leave rural areas behind and enter the urban zone, it gets increasingly intense...until The Outsiders are literally reaching into the train windows from the platform outside. For what? Anything. Grabbing onto Anything At All, just to be grabbing.

I'll never forget going to Sri Lanka and being so amazed at not only the cleanliness of the railway platforms, but the fact that no one was living on them. Unheard of, in India - the railway stations are semi-0fficial homes to countless people. And the windows of Sri Lankan trains are big, and open - no bars!

In Nepal, you can let your guard down (almost literally). There are very few beggars here, comparatively. Most of the street kids are actively trying to DO something - even if it is just sell satin pocketbooks. One little kid does hand drawings in crayon and walks around"selling" them. Other teenagers hawk tiger balm, wooden flutes, and so on. At least they are trying to do something. They are far less aggressive than in India and would never follow you down the street harassing you.

It is interesting to keep in mind that Nepal is the absolute last on the SAARC list of nations economically. Below even Bangladesh. Yet they are so laid-back and relatively genteel.

The Academic Tourist

Yesterday, I met a Fulbright scholar from Harvard (!) sitting opposite me at the wireless cafe. It turns out I know his roommate, an American lady who speaks fluent Tibetan and is teaching conversational Tibetan here. Last week I met a German and a Nepali-American student here learning classical Nepali music at the university. The German girl is here on a student visa, whc. Three weeks ago I met a guy from Kentucky, Drew Bewlay, who is here doing his college internship with the newspaper
The Rising Nepal (he is a photojournalism student). Kentucky is the border state with Tennessee so it was almost like meeting a next-door neighbor.

My friend Rene is here also in college - she arranged an internship with one of those companies where you pay to volunteer, but got there and didn't like it, so now she volunteers with various people all over town including the gay rights magazine, Blue Diamond Society. She extended her stay by 2 months' time and now is going to India to do commercial photography.
So many interesting people doing interesting things.

In a bar last month I met 2 logisitics specialists who work for the World Food Programme, which has a major office here. They go out to rural locations and see what the situation is. How many helicopters will we need to airlift bags of rice into Mugu district? Where will we store it? Will the rats get it? Monsoon rains? Are the people so corrupt that it will all disappear before the villagers see it? And so on.
Many of our conversations revolve around how to stay in Nepal, why we love Nepal, places we have been in Nepal, people we have met, stories of people we have met, what's going on politically, and whatever work we are doing (in my case I am tracking down various stories, in between breakdowns).

Kevin is an Australian pilot who works for Dragon Air HongKong. He came here for 4 weeks after his marriage broke up and spent 2 volunteering in an orphanage, which he liked even better than trekking. He told me about his last day, when two of the kids came up and said, "Mr Kevin, we don't want you to leave." Kevin is a big, manly guy, but he got a little misty telling me that story.

There are also the party-hardy type recreational tourists, but they live in rather a different world. They are a very different breed from the people who come to do something here, or to study. That's fine, because they are good for the economy and they are tolerated and even welcomed by the locals. There are also the ultra hard core adventure tourists, but they are mostly in the hills or whitewater rafting or bungee jumping off a gorge.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Amoebas in our midst

The Host Organism speaks
Kathmandu, Nepal

Today I went back to the CIWEC clinic (no one seems to know what these initials stand for) to give a specimen. CIWEC, located in a new building in Lazimpat opposite the British Embassy, is the kind of place that would never be allowed to exist in India: a fully modern clinic staffed almost entirely by foreign doctors and dentists (with a few foreign-educated Nepalis). The clinic and doctors are clean, friendly and efficient. The receptionist (usually a British or Australian volunteer) is welcoming, with no haughty attitude. The nurses are foreign volunteers here on student visas. Other than Dr Kishore Pandey, who describes himself as "a pukka Nepali," all the doctors are from America and various European countries.

Amazingly, they are able to analyze the specimen while you wait - and the wait is never long. They have this wizard of a Nepali guy doing all the lab work and he's very accurate.

In India, such a clinic would be either taken over by the government or (much the same thing) shut down within weeks. The official reason would be trumped-up, but the real reason is that the foreign doctors, with all their friendliness and efficiency, make Indian hospitals and doctors look bad. And they would be right.

I like walking to CIWEC, because I get to stroll through some quiet backstreets from Thamel to Lazimpat. There's a vacant lot where, on dry days, kids often gather to play soccer. Now it's muddy and full of puddles, and dingy-yellow sheep graze there innocently. There is no fence and the sheep are not tied; when the day is over their keeper, who lives down the block next to the video store, just kind of comes and herds them home.

On this same street (which is smack in the middle of the city's Embassy district) people keep goats and chickens by the side of the road. I have gotten to know the regular street dogs whose universe is divided into corner domains.

Lama's Food Shoppe is one of the only places I can find my favourite orange popsicles. By the time I've reached Lainchaur I am hot, so I always sit on the concrete stoop with the lounging street dogs and try to eat the popsicles before they melt. Other regulars come by, and buy soda pop, candy and cigarettes. Lots of school kids in uniform hang out there after 3pm, procrastinating on the way home.

Turns out I have not only giardia, but 2 types of amoeba and something called Blastocystis. I seem to have picked up some travelling companions along the way. This explains my weird weight gain, bloating, loss of appetite and general lousy feeling.

I have to take Tinidazole, which makes you feel like crap (okay because I already feel like crap and can't do much) for a few days and it's up to me whether I want to give another sample. The doctor was $50 and the sample lab work was $17.

Tinidazole should (should!) help the Giardia. I don't know what will get rid of amoebas. I have picked these up some time in the past year; last year at this time I had only ("only!") Giardia and the Blastocystis.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

This just in...

...Violence works!
Kathmandu, Nepal

In the wake of country-wide protests regarding the proposed hike in all fuel products, the government has announced...they are reconsidering. Prices might not go up after all. Yay, democracy in action!
Read the full story here.

Strike out

Fossil fools
Kathmandu, Nepal

There's a strike on today. That means there are no buses, no taxis, and some shops will be closed. My friend Jayanthi Lama wants me to come to her grandfather's funeral puja today, but I don't know how I would get there. Her neighborhood, Tinchuli, would take about 1.5 hours to walk too, and I am too sick to walk that far right now.

It's my favourite kind of protest - that of students and the general public. Not a pre-planned photo op, and not some special- interest group. (I have now seen enough protests to appreciate their individual nuances.)

"Situation is very bad on the outside today," said my favourite waiter at the hotel, Raj Lama. Raj Lama is seventeen years old and has been working in restaurants full-time since age 15, to help support his mother and siblings back in rural Kavre district. "No taxis, no buses. One American man was here and had to go to airport, he paid 1700NRs (nearly $30) for a cycle rickshaw!" A cycle rickshaw to the airport? that's quite a haul, but "ke garne
" (what to do)?
A taxi ride from Thamel to the airport is never more than 150NRs or about $2.50).

"Ke Garne?" ("what to do?") is the quintessential Nepali expression. People here have been helpless in the face of unchanging reality for so long, but somehow they never give up. They find a way around and through things. I'll never forget seeing tiny Nepali porters (about 5 foot 5) carrying full-sized modern refrigerators on their bent backs, or a full-sized sofa strapped
to the top of a rural bus. (how did they even get a sofa up there? was it like building the pyramids, moving giant blocks on rolling logs?)

Even though I haven't left my room because I have a horrible cold and fever, and have been coughing up
thick yellow goo for 2 days, I could tell there was a strike.
First, it seemed awfully quiet for 10am. Usually by now, there are plenty of taxis honking and motorcycles beeping. Suddenly I heard a tremendous rattling cacophony. It sounded like 2 dozen metal shop gates being pulled closed at once, which is exactly what it was. Almost in unison, the shop keepers (who sit on their front steps waiting for business) jumped up and the corrugated metal gates came cascading down, with the keepers themselves safely behind on the shop side.

At the same time, I heard a chorus of throaty chanting coming down the street, and marching rhythms.
About 100 young men, some wearing red kerchiefs but most in the usual t-shirts and jeans, were trooping - loosely, like they hadn't quite decided whether to just jog, or march in semi-formation - down the narrow street, chanting "Loktantra Zindabad, Zindabad" (Long live the rule of the people) . One guy in front carried a satiny red flag aloft, leading the way. A few amazed, dazed white tourists stepped aside (as much as you can since the streets are so narrow); some took photos.

The shopkeepers "down shutters" in case the protest turns violent. Whenever protests turn violent, shops that remain open are targeted (since, if you are sy
mpathetic to their cause and standing with your fellow Nepalis, you are also meant to be out protesting...not running business as usual). Taxi and bus drivers are supposed to be joining the ranks; those that might disagree don't dare run for fear of reprisal from the strikers and protestors.

I flashed back to Friday's newspaper headlines.
"Petrol price hike." The commerce minister announced on Friday that all petroleum product prices were going up - petrol (gas), diesel, and kerosene. This affects not only buses and taxis, but private vehicles (motorcycles, scooters and the private cars of the middle class) and more immediately for the poor - cooking. The rural poor use wood fires, but the urban poor use kerosene stoves (which only light about 1/3 of the time. You spend more time trying to light the stove than you do cooking on it). Those with a bit more means these days use butane gas that comes heavy, red metal cylinders. These prices are going up 100NRs per cylinder. That's a lot when you only make a couple 100 Nepali rupees a day.

Here is the lead from the Himalayan Times story, plus link:

Price hike fuels national furore
August 19:
Protest demonstrations were staged nationwide today against the hike in the prices of petroloeum products. Kathmandu Valley remained tense throughout the day after the students and general public began protesting. Protestors demanded immediate withdrawal of the government's decision besides the reginsation of Ministor for Indisutry, Commerce & Supplies....They vandalized government and private vehicles at Teku, Balaju, Maitidevi, Chabahil and New Baneshwor. A few protestors were injured in police action at Teku....

"On the occasion of her 79th Auspicious Birthday"
It's also the Queen Mother's Birthday. Queen Ratna, wife of late King Mahendra, somehow managed to escape the massacre instigated by her own grandson and lives on as Dowager Queen or Queen Mother. It's the custom here for the newspapers to print a front-page photo of any royal family member on their birthday, and wish them a "long, happy and prosperous life."

It was also"the occasion of" my own mother's 76th birthday a few days ago. Maybe I should continue this Nepali custom on my own website. My own mother is still the Queen Mother in my life. (sorry Mom, I don't have a scanned photo of you....)

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Last stop: Lhasa

Magic bus
Patan, Nepal

I found the dot-matrix printed homespun flyer promsing "70$ Bus trip to Lhasa." I phoned the number - they answered in local tradition with an uncertain "Hello?" rather than with the name of the business.

This means you then have to ask, "Is this the _______ office?"

By the way, no company name was listed at all on the flyer, so I had to say, "is this the bus to Lhasa?"

"No, this is E-Trek."

"Okay E-Trek, I am calling about the bus to Lhasa. Is this the right number?"

"Yes, but...


" that bus is not for foreigners."

Not for foreigners! Why?

"Only for Nepali and Chinese people."

but WHY?

"Because there was too much trouble with getting the foreigners' visas on that bus, with the Chinese government. " (Read: they were not making enough money that way.) "Foreigners must take a special package tour on a special bus."

"So how much is this special tour?"

"The package tour is $400 plus for 7 days, and that includes the guide, and sight-seeing, and..."

Forget it!

I said, "but I don't want a whole package guided tour. I just want to go to Lhasa. $400 is too much for a bus even both ways; I can fly there for $255!"

This really incensed me. Why should my butt take up $400 worth of room when if I were Nepali it would only take up $70 worth of room?

I insisted that I knew they could get me the "group visa" and then I could split off on my own, which, in fact, I do know because I know people who have done it. They didn't want to talk about it over the phone, and asked me to come by the office.

I happen to know where E-trek is, which is a good thing, as there is no address on the flyer and the guy neglected to tell me. It's in Thamel, sandwiched between a money-changer, embroidered t-shirt shop and store selling maps to Mount Everest and Kailash.

Of course, they have a vested interest in selling me a $400 package tour, if they can. That hardly means it's the only way in. I have been warned about this. The "group visa" thing is largely a fiction these days. All the "group visa" is, is a typewritten sheet of paper the travel agent has. There is no group visa in your passport...just an ordinary Chinese visa. If you can manage to get across the border without getting robbed blind by these agents, you can then pretty much wander off on your own.

Hmmm. No foreigners, indeed. I will go see these characters at E-trek this weekend.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

The Cows Come Home

Bring out your dead!
Bhaktapur, Nepal

Our week of celebrating the coming Nepali festival season got off to a bad start. Floriane (a Belgian student here studying the outcaste women of Nepal) and I went out to Boudha to witness something of Janai Purnima (which falls on the August full moon). I was hoping to see the Jhankris, or Tamang shamen, dance around the stupa. We saw some awesome artwork at the new Nyima monastery, and emerged to find Floriane's shoes had been stolen. (Expensive Teva sandals, a present from her mother.) It must be extra rotten karma to steal from a visitor to a Buddhist monastery - and extra extra rotten on a holy day.

Maybe the guilty person will be reborn as a cow - that is, an unfortunate western cow - whose hide will be used to make shoes.

On Thursday, Floriane and I made for Bhaktapur to watch yet another quintessentially Nepali holiday (Nepaliday?)

Gai Jatra (Cow Pilgrimage) is a sort of Nepali version of the Mexican Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. Each family who has lost a member during the previous year constructs a "gai" of bamboo branches, cloth, paper decorations and portraits of the deceased. The belief is that a cow must lead the dead spirits into the next land, but it's rare to see a real cow involved. Instead,they construct the "thaha macha" or "false cow." Each thaha macha looms overhead like a swaying radio tower. They bamboo tower is often covered with cloths that belonged to the deceased - black for women, white for males.

The looming, swaying photos paraded unblinking through the streets reminded me of the Monty Python line - "bring out your dead!!"

The families (usually males, but sometimes women help) cart this contraption through the narrow streets on their shoulders.

We took a local bus
from Ratna Park (the central bus stand inKathmandu) out to Bhaktapur. A one-hour ride: total cost, 20Rs or fifty cents (a taxi is nearly $10 US). There are two buses, though, one that makes all local stops and another that's faster - we fortunately got the faster one. In classic Asian fashion we sat on the covered gear-shift to give a proper seat a breast-feeding mom, who was as surprised as she was grateful.

Gai Jatra is also a day for transvestism, political satire, free speech, stick-dancing in the streets, and general goofiness and masking. In a sort of combination April Fool's and Halloween, "mad" comic papers of crazy news and political spoofs are printed. It was a long, hot sweaty day in the streets, but so much fun we didn't realize how dehydrated we were till it was long over (at which point I nearly keeled over and had to spend the night at Bhadgaon Guest House).

For kids, it's turned into a sort of all-purpose Halloween type holiday and I saw many plastic western-style masks. SpiderMan is especially popular with both little boys and girls.

All the guide books describe Gai Jatra as a one-day thing. In Bhaktapur (literally, "city of devotion") it's the beginning of a week-long festival. Every day sees different processions, with various street dances and costumes, till the final day of Krishna Janmashtami (Krishna's birthday).
All the guide books describe Gai Jatra as a one-day thing. In Bhaktapur (literally, "city of devotion") it's the beginning of a week-long festival. Every day sees different processions, with various street dances and costumes, till the final day of Krishna Janmashtami (Krishna's birthday).

The legend (every festival has a legend) is that a queen of long ago
lost her favourite son. She was inconsolable in her grief. Finally the king had enough of it and designed this festival to show her that others had suffered the same losses during the year, so she should get over herself. It also helps the town make a light-hearted celebration of their loved ones and helps everyone get over their mourning stage.

Every generation has a role to play in Gai Jatra and even if you did not lose a member of your family, you are expected to help your friends get all the Sacred Stuff together, so it reinforces community bonds (says the anthropologist that lives in my head. Dr Wells would be proud!)

It's supposed to be a harvest time festival (like most days honouring the dead), but because it follows a lunar calendar, it gets earlier every year. In a few decades I guess they will be parading in the heat of the May sun. Maybe they adjust it every hundred years or so to avoid this.
In late afternoon, after having paraded their dead relatives all over town for a final look-see, the Cow Towers end up at the absolutely stunning Nyatapola Square, with its towering pagodas, and assemble in a moving circle, resembling some kind of huge MayDay dance.

At the parade's end well after dark, the False Cows are taken to the edge of the river, hacked apart with hand-axes and all the disposable parts - bamboo, paper cow-face decor, tinsel and straw - are tossed in the water, which ripples under the silvery full moon.

If you missed it, don't worry. In Nepal, there's always another festival next week.


Coke Adds Life

Kathmandu, Nepal

Coke and Pepsi are back in the Indian news. A few years ago Kerala was all up in arms about the stolen water from villages (and rightly so). Rumours about the soft drinks being full of pesticides have been flying around for ages, and have now been revived. (Of course, when you are manufacturing them with Indian tap water, which is already full of god knows what, they are bound to be pretty questionable anyway.)

The Indian papers are all full of stories warning that the Pepsi-Cide scandal will be "bad for the economy": WASHINGTON (AFP) - As Coca-Cola and Pepsico lose their fizz in India, the US government and business leaders are warning of potential fallout on investment in the booming country of a billion-plus people.

Most of the traditional, hand-painted sign boards for shoppes here have been replaced by corporate ones from the soda companies. They picture Indian film stars reverentially holding a bottle. Instead of being works of individual art, all the signs now look the same...and all are just adds for Coke and Pepsi.

I went for a short hike to a nearby hill temple and on the way back, noticed there was not *one* tea stall...all the shoppes were just serving Coke and other bottled drinks. No tea in sight! and no juice (except the horribly overpriced boxes).

I have cultural ties to Coke (it was invented in my hometown by the Chattanooga Patent Medicine Company and we grew up drinking it) so I enjoy it, but at what price to locals?

My Tamil friend who is in college in Delhi says that the phenomena of everyone drinking sodas is new. Ten years ago, everyone drank water with everything. Now, everyone "has" to have a soda or bottled drink. Sort of like paying extra money to rot your teeth.

These drinks, besides being unhealthy, are extortionately priced at 20rs. I mean, when you make 100Rs a day.... by comparison, in the US, where you make $100 a day, there is no drink on the market that is $20. They are outrageously priced for ordinary people, and the people are *bombarded* with ads for their desirability.

Drink tender coconut water! (where available...I miss it here in Nepal.)

I win! this time

Thanks for playing!
Kathmandu, Nepal

My photo taken at the Tundikhel Maoists' rally (at right) won TrekShare Picture of the Month for July. Thanks to everyone who voted, I win a free t-shirt. That and a $1.00, as they used to say, will get me on the subway.

Now, if I can win Picture of the Year I will win $200. But the competition is tough....

More good photo news: has asked to add one of my "Role Reversal" photos to their online India collection. This was part of the "Work" series I did with Vijay Sekuru in Andhra Pradesh this February.

I need to spruce up my homepage. It has about less than 1% of the photos I've taken over the years.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

My Dinner With Durga

Goddess in Progress
Bhaktapur, Nepal

I am exhausted after managing to stumble into yet another one of my fairy-tale encounters with yet another fringe culture nearing extinction. After checking out the National Art Museum in Bhaktapur (some masterpieces of psychedelic tantric Buddhist and Hindu art are there), I had decided to track down the Nava Durga Dyochhen, supposedly home base for the Nava Durga dancers - ritual masked dancers who perform during the year for festivals in this most traditional of Nepali cities.

Old ladies and uniformed schoolgirls pointed me down narrow, damp, mouldy alleys; I was sure they wanted me to get lost. After passing through what felt like very intimate private spaces - enclosed courtyards with ducks, chickens and laundry in tubs - I emerged onto Nava Durga Path (being able to read the street signs really comes in handy). The Dyocchen itself looks like a haunted house, Nepali style, with fearsome brass skulls and gables all over the place. The guidebook described it as "a mysterious tantric temple open only to initiates" (most Hindu temples here are "open only to Hindus," defined as being people who look Indian regardless of whether they are Buddhist, Christian or otherwise).

I noticed that the usual spectacularly ornate carved doorway was missing something -the central figure directly over the door, goddess Durga, had been nicked. There's a book about this (The Gods Are Leaving the Country, all about Nepali art theft). Judging by the surrounding decorations, the centrepiece must have been masterful. It was sadly replaced by a hand-written paper sign in magic marker.

After being invited in by sweet, giggling Newari girls who spoke little English, I was told by the man who spoke the most English (very little as well) that the dancers were nowhere around and I could not talk to them. I stalled, though, and kept asking questions. In the back courtyard there were about 2 dozen people seated and someone addressing them through a loudspeaker.

It turned out THEY were the Nava Durga dancers themselves, and they were having a meeting! About what? About the fact that the dance company was having trouble, because all the young men (they are only male dancers) had to work jobs these days. They have not enough time for dance practice. And while they understood the need for money, the dance was having a hard time. The troupe elders felt that no one was really ready to dance. Festival season was around the corner, what to do?

Why on earth did the guy tell me the dancers were not around? and that it was "not possible" to speak to them? Did he just not understand my question?

It turned out that all the NavaDurga dancers belong to one Newari Hindu sub-caste, the flower sellers or Banamalas. Every single person there was surnamed Banamala. Bimesh Banamala, Gopal Banamala; the girl (any one of them could be models in the West; here they are a rupee a dozen) had the beautiful name ShivaKesari Banamala.

They were encouraged that an American woman was there wanting to learn about their dance, especially since the young people seemed to be losing some interest in it., and invited me to have dinner with them (traditional Newari food). Unfortunately, they spoke so little English all I could share was "yo khanna dehri mitoh cha" (Nepali for "this food is very tasty"), and so on.

Traditional Newari food was really good, and unusual, indeed. The mainstay is something called beaten paddy - flattened dried uncooked rice that is something like eating confetti. This, with soy beans, peas, big chunks of cooked ginger and roast garlic (my favourite), the ever-present Nepali potato, tomato relish and buffalo meat (which I skipped). This was topped off with Chang, a rice beer that looks just like watered-down milk and tastes just like watered-down beer. I noticed that I was the only lady present who was served Chang. It was so nice to have native food without fear of green chilis (always a problem in India).

We all sat on thick woven straw mats on the brick floor of the temple mandap (a sort of pavilion in the courtyard for gatherings) and the food was served on plates made of dried, pressed leaves. In south Asian fashion, 2 rows of people sit cross-legged opposite one another as volunteers move up and down the aisle in between with big vats of each item, ladling out more as you like. If you don't want more, you just block your leaf-plate with your hand and do the head-woggle thing (there are 2 or 3 head woggles and by now I know the one that means "no thanks" as opposed to the ones that mean "yes, " "i understand," and "I am pretending to say yes, but really will go on and do as I please."

The Newaris are a mysterious, quiet, creative, artistic and often beautiful people. Their origins are misty - they speak a language (considered one of the most difficult in the world) that is not Sanskritic based but Tibeto-Burman. It sounds like a cross between Nepali and Chinese, but is written in a Sanskritic script that looks like a fantastically ornate Hindi. "Jeen nakhateeni ghanay dhoona" means "I already had my dinner, thanks."

All the fantastical wooden carvings, stone masterpieces and brass doorways you see around the Kathmandu Valley - ALL of them - are products of the Newari culture. Newaris are both Hindu and Buddhist, with little division socially between them. Yet though they are responsible for most everything we associate with Nepali culture, they have never been the rulers of the valley, never the kings, and they comprise only a small percentage of the actual Nepali population. The entire valley is a profusion of teak gargoyles, serpentine nagas and snarling protector gods because of the tremendous creative energy of the ancient Newaris.

Anyway, I want to find out more about the Nava Durga dances - what they look like, when and where they are performed how you actually go about staging a performance, and what it means to the community involved. Every single members of the Banamalas have a role in the Nava Durga pageants. Bimesh, the "cool" modern Newari who spoke the most English, turned out to be not a dancer, but a sculptor who is working on the new crown for the temple's Durga statue. I am going to watch him work tomorrow at 10am. I had planned a nice day in the country at Changu Narayan temple, but life and ancient goddesses have a way of asserting themselves...especially in the Magic Kingdom.

I need a Nepali or Newari interpretor.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Monsooner or later, pt. 2

Singin in the Rain
Kathmandu, Nepal

The net was down today because of torrential rainfall....I mean, up to my ankles on the road. I took a cycle rickshaw to the restaurant and it was like a boat. Of course, the driver just smiled and laughed the whole way. I paid him 20NRS, which is less than fifty cents.

People stood in doorways or tromped down the streets sort of cheering the rain on and whooping. Nobody gets mad, nobody seems frustrated, they are almost inspired by the rain's fury. Really, they stand there looking out like kids who are getting to play hooky because of the snow - with big grins, kind of cheering on the storm. It leads to an interesting, "we're all in this together" feeling. All kinds of trash floats down the street, potato chip bags and cigarette butts.
my acquaintance DB Jhirel is a villager from near Jiri which is up in the north. He just came back from a visit to his village. He didn't know it when he left Kathmandu (he works as a trekking guide here) but his youngest sister (of 10 children) had committed suicide - by poisoning. She left behind 3 kids all under 10 and a husband. Evidently they ran a shop together and there was 7000NRS (about $100) missing one day from the till. They had a big fight over it and it escalated. DB's English is so bad, I couldn't get more information. So, "she kill herself, she drink poison" he said with a smile. She was in her early 30s. It (the smile) doesn't mean he didn't care about her...these people are just so accustomed to putting on a brave face in hard times, they take it as it comes. So, she kill herself. Life goes on. Or so his attitude seems to say.

People actually will kill themselves over sums like $100 here, or even less. There are farmers in India killing themselves over unpayable debts of $50 or 100 or so. They take out loans during a bad crop season, and then if the rains don't come or for some reason the seeds don't sprout (bad seeds) and so on they can't possibly make the money back. Fifty dollars, $100, an insurmountable debt to them.

Last year when I was trekking in Panauti valley I ran into 2 young men on their way to a village funeral. The woman, they told me, was the mother of a friend. She had drunk poison because she was unable to deal with the death of her son, who was killed in an "encounter" between the Army and Maoists. They, too, were smiling. You would have thought they were on their way to a party, which in a way I guess they were (funerals, of course, mean lots of food and drink). I was dying (no pun intended) to follow them to the village and see the proceedings, but my Canadian trekking partner Ellen had gone ahead to the lodge, it was late afternoon and I had no way of telling her what I was doing. If you go to one of these folks' houses you MUST spend the evening there, it is rude otherwise. Ellen would have been terrified (women shouldn't trek alone after dark). So I went on to Dhulikhel where sure enough, the lodge owner (a sixty year old Newari grandfather who had been a longhaired hippy in the 60s - he showed us a photo. the 60s and 70s were the hey-day of Nepali travel), his grandson, the cook, and Ellen were all standing outside the lodge keenly watching the road for a sign of me.

At first I thought they were overly concerned. Then the next day Ellen told me PurnaMan Shrestha's (the lodge owner's) story about his own daughter. His daughter had disappeared a few years ago and was finally assumed to have been murdered. That's why he was raising his grandson. I realized how lucky I was to have such people worrying about me.

From then on, I promised to be home before dark.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Monsooner than later

Well, I am sorry I have not written more. SO much is happening. I am in the process of trying to help
about 4 different parties with their lives (imagine that, me helping someone get their life together.)
But it is good for me.

And net access has been terrible. My fave Wi Fi place decided that they will only have wi fi in
daytime. So that cuts down 50 percent.

Trying to arrange a trip to Tibet - because for visa reasons, I need to leave Nepal for 1 month if I am to return for October and November. Sorry for spacing problems... this keyboard is weird.

Thursday, August 03, 2006


Indians are doing just fine here....
Kathmandu, Nepal

Everybody calm down, just calm down.

Tales of Indians threatened by Maoists here seem to have been greatly exaggerated (imagine that, something being exaggerated in India). Bottom line: 2 people have left the country (TWO), no other Indians I spoke to have any plans to and the general consensus is that the Indian news accounts have greatly overstated the facts.

I paid a visit to the Indian Embassy yesterday, but I might as well have phoned as they would only let me speak to the "consular attache" via a house phone. After the standard denials and nothingspeak ("nothing has happened as yet meddem") he then went on to contradict himself by saying that in fact, a couple of people (couldn't specify the number) had been harassed by "the people who are agitating in this country." And what happened to those people who had been harassed? "They have left the country."

Well, that sounds like "something" has happened to many people? "One or two." What, you don't know how many people have left the country under threat? Then he claimed the Indian Ambassador was now meeting with the PM. (the actual meeting turned out to be with a lesser figure, see news link below.)

As usual, the contact with Indian bureaucracy was more useful for entertainment value than for actual information. It was kind of nostalgic to see the bushy moustaches and "safari suits," though. The old colonial bungalow-style building and bougainvillea trailing over the fence complete the Indian feeling.

Then I went to one of the major casinos - Casino Rad at the Radisson. Most of the casino tourists and some of the managers and employees are Indian. No exodus here - the place was LOADED with Indians. Punjabis with their turbans were waddling around piling their buffet plates high with naan and rice and having a good old time. A bunch of Haryanvis were there from Sonepur and got very excited that I had been to Gurgaon. They were all watching the floor show, which is skinny Nepalis in skimpy costumes cavorting to Punjabi and filmi music (including a dancing midget in a "sexy" outfit. I kind of wish I had not seen that.)

My friend Kenny is a Tibetan Indian (born and raised in Mussoorie) visiting here from Delhi. He had Indian friends there, so I asked Ravi from Jaipur about it. "FAKE news," Ravi retorted, "this is just fake news. Indians have no problems here." Ravi was on the phone to Gurgaon. Someone was phoning in blackjack bets as he sat there. He had chips worth $2,000 US on the table in front of him.

Indeed, lots of Indians seemed to be really enjoying the roulette table. How did I know they were Indian? Easily identifiable by their plaid shirts and tight trousers!

At my own hotel, a couple of Indians are employed. I asked the desk guys who speak good English about it. The street gyan seems to be that yes, a couple guys did get a hard time, but they had run afoul of locals and those locals happened to have quasi-Maoist connections (quasi Maoist, possibly quasi-thug). So those non-representative Maoists came and threatened the Indians. It has nothing to do with any official Maoist party action. Those guys did leave the country in much the same way you might if you ran afoul of some Mumbai goondas and had to leave Maharashtra.

The fact is that, despite admonitions and orders from Maoist Centre, party members afield are continuing abductions, extortions, vandalizing or shutting down factories and noncooperative businesses, holding people's courts and so on - but victimizing only Nepalis. There are several such accounts in the paper daily, and of course those are only the ones that reach media. Average rural Nepalis are in far more danger from the Maoists than any Indians or other foreigners here.

A local paper ran the first story I'd seen about it here.
by Surendra Phuyal
As a leading Indian newspaper sounded alarm over a new threat posed by Maoist-aligned All Nepali Hotel Worker's Union in Nepal, India's Ministry of External Affairs on Tues. clarified that the entire Indian cmomunity in Nepali is not under threat and that it has taken up thematter with the govt. of Nepal.

Hard on the heels of the TOI front page report Tues. that "Maoists are hounding out Indians" with addtiional reports on an inside page warning of a backlash (ed note: sounds like TOI was dead set on creating that backlash themselves singlehandedly) - the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu was expected to take up the matter with Home Minister Sitaula on Tuesday.

Exaggerating the story of two Indian nationals - Rajesh Kataria and Kishore Sagar - getting their marching orders from the CPNM affiliated ANHWU this past week, the TOI wrote: "Death threats and 24 hour deadlines for leaving - received by Indian hospitality sector employees have created a deep sense of fear in the community." The 2 were employed at a Kathmandu casino (ed. note: I heard it was Casino Royal at the Yak & Yeti) and have reportedly returned to India after receiving death threats.

The daily added, "the frightened community leaders have gone to the Indian Embassy in KTM for protection." The elaborate report also talked about an alleged Maoist threat to Indian surveyors working at the proposed Koshi Dam site in eastern Nepal, Maoist threats to Dabur Nepal and other Indian joint ventures and last year's ANHWU threat to India's Taj Group which had a stake in 2 major hotels.

There's more, but I can't find the Kathmandu Post link and am having to type it all other words, yes, some Indian ventures were threatened at various times in the past but no more so than lots of Nepali businesses, like the noodle factory that was shut down today or Gurkha Beer which was just recently able to reopen.

Here is a Yahoo news link.