Sunday, October 29, 2006


Thoughtful fan mail
Kathmandu, Nepal

A very thoughtful and newswatching Tom in Iowa writes:

Hi SirensongsIndia,

If you respond to this that means you were not on the bus that plunged over backwards down a 1000 ft ravine in Nepal.

Crowded bus plunges off Nepal road, killing 42: An overcrowded bus plunged off a mountain road in western Nepal on Saturday, leaving at least 42 people dead and 45 injured, police said. Police were investigating the cause, but an initial probe indicated the driver may have lost control of the vehicle because it was overloaded with passengers. (source: USA Today)

Overloaded or overcrowded? an Asian vehicle? Imagine that. Check this out (these photos are really nothing extreme) and welcome to my world!

--Nope, I wasn't on that or any other bus; I was safe several hundred miles away filling out papers in triplicate in an immigration office, on an otherwise bee yoo ti full fall day. Sorry for the brevity, just wanted everyone to know I am safe, if preoccupied. Thanks for your concern!

The snowcapped Himalayas are now visible even from the mundane valley streets. I yearn to be among them!

photo source: "Lords of the Logistic" from Aistigave, Belgium

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Diwali walli* goes Nepali

Festivus maximus
Kathmandu and Lalitpur, Nepal

*Wallah: someone who is particularly expert at or specializes in a certain activity or profession. Walli: feminine of Wallah.

Everything happens at once, all the time, here. We're now in the middle of yet another cluster of festival days. This one is Diwali, aka Tihar, the Hindu festival of lights and Lakshmi, goddess of wealth and abundance. Some things are closed, some are open for business, many look deceptively open yet are operating on skeleton crew.

Naturally, all government offices are closed. In fact, I think they were literally closed more days than they were open this month.

Bunches of dressed-up, beaming people roam the streets, butter-lamps are lit at in doorways at dusk, children make the rounds singing and drumming deusi-bailo (a sort of Newari trick-or-treating from door to door) in the evenings. Every home and shop has a rangoli (sort of mandala-design invitation to the goddess, painted with cow dung, coloured powder, lamps and flower petals) at the front door - a painted pathway to guide Lakshmi as she enters to bless the residence. Everywhere you can hear the sounds of ringing puja bells, and Newari panchbhaje bands go from door to door playing their distinctive, reedy ceremonial music. A few months ago I wrote about the snake holiday (Naag Panchami). I can really hear the snake spirit in the sounds of the long, narrow Newari horns.

New Newaris
Today I am rushing to get some prints made for Pramochan, one of the (the many) Newari masked dancers I photographed this past Dasain season. On Dasain day, I received tikka and jamara (red powder on the forehead and sprigs of barley behind the ear) from Pramochan's father. Tikka and jamara are a sort of blessing given from elders to juniors on Dasain day. So, Pramochan's familiy (all five of whom live in a traditional Nepali wooden house, which looks like a hayloft with a five-foot ceiling) have invited me to Mha Puja. (Yet another puja!)

I love the tradition of jamara, which is (as far as I know) unique to Nepal. On the first day of Dasain, the lady of the house plants seeds of barley, rice or corn, in a bed of sand, in a special niche inside the home. The seeds are then covered and allowed to sprout secretly in warmth and darkness. It's during these nine days that the goddess Durga is symbolically fighting evil. On the tenth day, Vijaya Dashami, the jamara is uncovered and revealed to have grown into long, bright green grassy stalks. The stalks are then ritually harvested and bestowed upon juniors by the family elders.

Everyone walks around town with an enormous red dot (made of red kumkum powder, rice and yogurt) on their foreheads and chartreuse sprigs sprouting from their hair like feathers (see photo below). Nepalis absolutely love tikka and jamara ("sooooo beauty-full") and seemed very proud to be seen with me, once I was properly marked.

Today's festivity, Mha Puja, is done only by the Newari community on the occasion of Newari New Year (it's now 1126). This ceremony honours and blesses the individual's body for the coming year. Fortunately I have a Newari and Nepali interpreter and hope to find out more about it. I am bringing the prints as a present for the family. (Others might get away with bringing a box of sweets, but as a foreigner with a digital camera, I am honour-bound to provide free prints to the family. I think it's a tradeoff for the stigma they might otherwise receive of associating with a foreigner.)

Rituals in transfigured time
Here in Nepal, we are running three simultaneous calendars. The business calendar is (sort of) the "English" or Gregorian calendar. Then there's the Vikram Sambat or Nepali Hindu calendar, in which it's 2063 and the new year is in April. It is quite common for buildings to boast of having been "established in 2059" (my Australian friend Dave took a photo of this - he thought it was a typo), or for people to say "the conference will begin after 10 Bhadra."

When yet another time cycle, the Newari calendar, starts tomorrow, and it will be 1127. The Newari new year is figured from our AD 867, when legend has it that a Newari Jyapu (farmer caste) discovered a riverbed of gold, and thus paid off everyone's debts. A good way to make a fresh start.

Now if I could just make some money and pay off a few of my debts...guess I will be offering Lakshmi extra marigolds and butter lamps for that one.

New widgets on the block!
Feeds, widgets, clusters, tags, bookmarklets, clouds, sprinkles, aggregators, badges. I'm just now learning about the galaxy of nifty blog features and how they procreate.

I've added a couple of new widgets (nifty code dropped into my template to do cool things) to the blog site. The SirenLocator Map (requires Flash, I think) should show online viewers as they appear, and even reveal a map of their nation (for those unclear on geography).

Scroll down and you will find the Current Moon Phase, essential for life in Nepal and other parts of Asia.

My SirenDelicious feed shows my favourite items and headlines saved to And Global Voices headlines feed show selected headers from the Nepali and Indian blogosphere.

Coming soon: my very own tag cloud, and a Newsvine widget. Oh, and I've finally caught up and gotten myself a YouTube account, but some stupid folk singer already snatched the name SirenTV will be appearing as "SirensongsIndia." Maybe someday I'll figure out how to upload my many videos directly to this site.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Here, read this

Catching up, sort of
Kathmandu, Nepal

Today was yet another strike, this one notable for not having been convened either by Maoists or "labour unions" who were organized as Maoist mouthpieces. Instead, this strike was called by (wait for it) the Kathmandu Chamber of Commerce.

The COC intended to protest law enforcement's inability to protect them from the ongoing Maoist demands for "donations" from local business owners. Why can't the police and military do their job and protect us? they asked. Their method of protesting loss of revenue and business close the businesses.

We've been awash in garbage anyway; yet another of the endless litany of strikes has been that of the sanitation workers. At Thamel Chowk, I literally can't cross the street without some kind of scarf wrapped round my mouth. I saw that I wasn't the only one as I picked my way across the trash. (Can't tell the Maoists with their bandit-bandanas from the people trying to avoid garbage stench.)

In absentia
A number of people have written asking why I haven't blogged. As usual, when I don't write, it's not because nothing is happening. Just the opposite - it's because too much is happening and I am a bit overwhelmed.

The town has been abuzz with, for one, the ongoing peace talks between the Maoists and the Seven Parties, taking place just a few blocks away at the Prime Minister's house in Baluwatar. (Turns out the PM is neighbors with my friend David.) The many opportunistic/enterprising vendors selling candy, tea and cigarettes to the onlookers camped outside will no doubt be disappointed that evidently, the talks have failed. Among other things, the Maoists refuse to give up arms. How could they? The minute they do, they will be vulnerable to the families of their many victims, seeking justice for all the abductions, extortion, "people's court" verdicts and so on.

Nun shall pass
A number of western mountain climbers witnessed the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old Tibetan nun as she attempted to cross the Tibetan-Nepalese border. When the climbers and their guides returned to Kathmandu, they were hunted down and rigorously questioned by Chinese spies. The nun, named Kelsang Nortso, was one of a group of Tibetan pilgrims on their way to see the Dalai Lama, and perhaps, to gain freedom in Nepal or India.

There are still people out there that believe the Dalai Lama is some kind of medieval feudal lord that wants to return his people to a pre-democratic age. Nothing could be further from the truth. The burden of being head of government is something the Dalai Lama has wanted to rid himself of for a long time, and at his request, they have been moving toward being a fully democratic people-in-exile. The Tibetans have just held a free election in Dharmsala, electing Professor Samdhong Rinpoche as their Prime Minister.

How the Other Half Lives
My Nashville correspondent Darkhorse asked, "Does India have its own Woodward and Bernstein" to report on the vast underbelly of social inequities? an antidote to all the India Shining superpower hype of TIME Magazine glossy cover-story ilk?

Like most Indian situations, numbers are part of the problem - it's difficult not to get overwhelmed. A good start is The Other India, taking its cue from Jacob Riis' How the Other Half Lives.

Oh, and read this. It's all about the latrine scavengers of India. That's right, people who move human waste with their bare hands.

I photographed some of these folks back in February in Madras, but lack of time and Tamil translation prevented me from getting their story firsthand. The middle-class, English speaking Indians I related this to seemed horrified that I would even acknowledge the existence of such a thing. Naturally, I then knew I was on to a good story. In other places, you might get in trouble for telling a lie. India is a place where you get in trouble for telling the truth.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Epidemic proportions

News Flash! Mosquitos don't discrminate!
New Delhi

In the Simple Problems with Self-Explanatory Solutions That Should Have Been Solved Forty Years Ago Department, the mosquito-borne illness Dengue ("denn-gay") strikes several places in India (Kerala, Delhi, Jammu & Kashmir), with more than 70 dead so far.

Malaria is no big news; even the annual Japanese Encephalitis Outbreak (a horrible way to die, in which your brain literally melts away slowly - and the vaccine is very expensive) has become passe, probably because it is rarely widespread and seems to strike only hinterland areas. A few villagers in UP or southern Nepal, that's usually it. When you have a billion people, life is cheap.

This outbreak of dengue appears to be garnering more press attention than your average epidemic because it's (shock) acutally made it to the upper rungs of Indian society. When the rich people start getting sick, it just might be time to do something!

The article below admits as much, semi-consciously. ("When doctors are getting sick, something is wrong." All emphases below are my own.)

A lot of the local press appears to treat mosquitos and their adjacent ills as unique to the subcontinent. It's quite maddening, when you realize that many other places have the selfsame problem and have dealt with it effectively, to hear people address this as though it has never happened anywhere before and it's an unknown quantity. In fact, mosquitos are a tremendous problem everywhere in the temperate world, including my homestate, where I was eaten alive when I so much as walked from the house to the car (about thirty feet). I don't know why there are no mosquito-borne diseases in the "developed" world - there are certainly plenty of mosquitos; we are a long way from getting rid of them.

Another local attitude toward mosquitos is that it is primarily a foreigners' problem. At shops and restaurants, they don't burn the mosquito coils until a foreign customer comes in...then they start taking precautions. And only the most tourist-oriented places (read: more expensive) have window screens. I asked one shopkeeper why he only lit the coils when I came in. He said, "the mosquitos do not find my blood tasty." Yet this strata of society (ordinary blue-collar Indians who live in poorly ventilated, crowded places, often with poor water sanitation) are usually the first to suffer from malaria.

When I lived (at various times in the past 4 years) in Andhra Pradesh, Chennai and Pune, the "municipality's" idea of mosquito prevention was to hire a fogger machine that made the evening rounds, chugging and clouding neighborhoods with DDT. Little kids love the noise and novelty of the machines and chase it around the block, breathing in big lungs full of the poison. I never noticed that it made any dent in the mosquitos (they just sensibly went indoors away from the smog - not hard to do when there are no screens or glass windows and most people keep open doors for air circulation), but it sure made my friends and I deadly ill, with headaches, wooziness, and severe chest pains.

You could always have functioning drains, and screens on the windows. No, that's too easy.

AIIMS Wakes Up to Dengue On Campu
NEW DELHI: After 15 people including doctors and students were tested positive for dengue at the premier All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) here, institute authorities admitted on Saturday that the situation was alarming and necessary directives were being issued to control it.

"A student is in the intensive care unit after being operated upon for a dengue-related problem. He is in a very critical condition and is on the life support system," said a top AIIMS official.

In last two weeks, over 20 cases of dengue have been reported from the AIIMS and a 17-year-old girl succumbed to the deadly fever earlier this week.

Out of the 20-odd cases, 15 have been reported from within the campus of the prestigious institute, including seven students and resident doctors.
"If doctors have caught dengue, that too in the AIIMS, then there is something wrong somewhere.
full story from Times of India.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Goats' head soup

Dead and kicking
Bhaktapur, Nepal-

Just saw my first goat sacrifice yesterday, and am still recovering.

I was under the naive impression that they held the poor thing down, slit its throat and let the blood drain out while the animal just kind of faded away. Nope. One guy holds it up by the horns and yanks its head back, another guy holds it by its tail, lifting it off the ground. The idea is to get the blood to SPURT and PUMP out onto the vehicle (usually car, tractor or motorbike) that is being .... well, christened is definitely not the right word. ("Inaugurated," maybe.)
Then as the goat screams and kicks in the air they carry it round the bike in a circle to get ALL Corners covered by blood.

If you stand too close you are in danger of getting spurted on, for real. Fresh blood is the reddest red you can imagine, it almost hurts your eyes. I used to have a bright red nail polish that was the same colour but you never see it elsewhere in nature. Not that bright.

Finally they brutally sever the head (at this point the throat is torn wide> open and you can almost see the heart still pumping) and put the head in the front adorning the ground. The body lies kicking and thrashing beside the vehicle.

I love all animals, but goats really have sass and personality, and this really bothered me. According to an American Hindu scholar who was with me, the scriptures say it is not a sin to eat meat as long as it was sacrificed to a god. But does sacrificing it in order to safeguard your vehicle count as religious? or at all spiritual?

Everywhere we went, at literally every corner of Bhaktapur, there were machines and vehicles adorned not just with pools of blood but what looked like clear plastic tubing. These turned out to be the washed strung-up entrails of the animal, draped like a festive garland over the radiator grill or handlebars. I purposely missed the sacrifice of a water buffalo last night in front of Brahmayani Peeth temple, but I did talk to the Navadurga Dancers who were required to drink the blood straight from the animal's neck. Their white ritual gowns were soaked pink like tie-dye. It is still really hot here in the daytime (okay, pretty hot - nothing like India though) so I am tired from walking all over town. Time to go shower. I have loads of photos to download, too.