Thursday, May 1, 2014

In the Blink of an Eye

We are now approaching the last month of our stay in Kathmandu, and we wrote our last blog over 2 months ago. Where did the time go??? Looking back, we see that we have been enjoying the company of several good friends who visited us in Nepal, we stepped up our travel schedule, and, poof, time evaporated! Here's a few updates:

Everyday Life in the Kat

Karen's teaching has continued, and Ben is now volunteering by running cultural orientation classes for a group of Nepali students who have been nominated to go to US colleges for a year on Fulbright fellowships. We are getting spoiled with the cooking, washing, and cleaning services of Juna, who comes three days per week. She makes dal bat (lentils in a broth) and rice, the standard Nepali meal, plus vegetables and chicken, for every meal. It's delicious the first few times you eat it, but satiation has set in, so we have her skip the cooking more and more often now. Still, her washing services are a big help, given that washers and dryers are nonexistent due to power shortage.

Seasons change faster here than in the US. Although we arrived to winter in early January, by the end of February, spring had arrived, and we dispensed with use of our gas heater. By early April, summer arrived, with daytime temperatures in the 80s and strong midday sun. Ben has perfected his vodka and tonics for cocktail hour on the rooftop. Karen now dons the traditional summer cotton kurta for school days or outings. Rains are infrequent, but when they do come, the streets clog up quickly with mud. And they can be fierce! Below is a "before" and "after" shot from an evening out with our friends Rick Polster and Jodie Collins, who visited us from Colorado. We were enjoying Sangria and a beautiful view of the Bodhnath stupa from a rooftop restaurant, when suddenly the rains opened up. Ben's holding a soggy french fry, almost the only thing left from our plates after the storm!

Luckily, we have had opportunities to visit Bodhnath in nicer weather. The Bodhnath stupa is the largest such dome in Asia. It was originally built by a Tibetan king and is the site of one of the oldest Buddhist stupas in the world. It is surrounded by the Tibetan community of Bouda, populated mainly by families of refugees who fled China after 1959. Pilgrims and locals congregate daily for ritual walks around the stupa, prayers, blessings, and visits to the monasteries. The all-seeing eyes of the Buddha are replicated on all sides, and the thirteen levels of the spire represent the stages that a human must past through to reach nirvana. In Bouda, there are several monasteries, where people come from all over the world to study and pray. Below is one of the monasteries during prayers.

The Kathmandu Valley affords close access for day trips to temples, medieval towns of the royal kingdoms that ruled the valley, and treks with mountain views when the weather is clear. Linda Camras and Jerry Seidenfeld visited us from Chicago, and we traveled together to Nagarkot, one of the mountain viewing points. Alas, our view of the Himalayas was a brief 5 minutes at dawn, hardly worth getting up for but beautiful nonetheless.  Here, we are hiking the area with our guide:

On the way to and from Nagorkot, we encountered many goats, cows, and monkeys that roam freely. On the left is a mother goat and her 1-day old baby. Initially the owner was carrying the baby and then let it down for a brief tete-a-tete with its mom before it began crying to be picked up again! Below is the beautiful Changu Narayan Temple, determined to have some of the oldest statues and inscriptions in Nepal, dating back to the 5th century AD.

Another famous Hindu site in Kathmandu is Pashupathinath, on the banks of the Bagmati River where Hindus come to cremate their dead through a sacred ceremony. There are temples, funeral ghats for burning bodies along the river, people seeking blessings from Shiva, and holy men who surround the area and willingly pose for pictures in exchange for a few rupees. It was initially a strange experience to be viewing, and taking photos, during cremation rituals, but we have learned that death is a much more open, matter-of-fact experience in this culture. We have been told by Hindus that it is not a sad time but rather one of joy, as it means that one is passing to nirvana. Here are a few photos:

Cremation in process, with ashes to be strewn in river below (although it is very dry at the moment)

Cremation of a revered person such as a sherpa or high official

Temples at Pashupathanath

Holy men posing for the camera

Travel to Chitwan National Park

One of our favorite trips thus far was to Chitwan, a wildlife preserve reputed to be one of the best viewing areas for wildlife in Asia. This jungle is located in southern Nepal near the India border, where the terrain is flat and covered with forests, marshlands, and grasslands. During our stay, we saw one-horned rhinos, wild elephants, crocodiles, and many species of deer, monkeys, and birds. The closest we came to seeing a Bengal tiger, leopard, or sloth bear was their poop, which was abundant everywhere along the trails. Our guide Gopal was excellent and charming to boot, climbing high into the trees to scout out animals as shown on the right. 

 In addition to our all-day jungle walk, we returned the next day to view the jungle from atop an elephant, which afforded a different perspective and some adventure as the elephant walked down the riverbank and kept us balanced and dry as we emerged on the other side of the river. We also enjoyed a peaceful canoe ride, visited a baby elephant and mother, and gained an appreciation for birding, with Gopal's sharp eyes directing our attention to the varied species.

Off to India!

Although Nepal has more than enough to keep us busy, we made our first trip to India in early March for the South Central Asia Regional Fulbright Conference. Karen presented on the research she has been doing on parenting attitudes in Nepal, and we attended presentations on topics ranging from spirituality and mental health to supraglacial lake changes to mystical love. The conference took place in Chennai, a huge city in southern India on the Bay of Bengal. The hotel was so luxurious, the Fulbright meetings nonstop and of high quality, and the food so delicious after our many dal bat meals that we barely made it out of the hotel! Still, one afternoon, we took a tuk-tuk along with a few other Nepal Fulbrighters to the Bay of Bengal for a stroll. We also visited a Hindu temple, which is very different and much more colorful in style than the temples in Nepal. 

I hesitate to report that we have only covered about half of our goings-on in the past several weeks. We will save the rest for another blog, including our recent, second trip to India. Stay tuned, and let us hear from you!

Namaste, Karen and Ben

Monday, February 17, 2014

From the Sublime to the Ridiculous

Six weeks into our stay in Nepal, we are pros at donning our masks to diminish the onslaught of chronic dust, and we've figured out how to make our way through the winding paths to our familiar haunts. Gone are the days of waking up to a hot shower, NPR, and fresh brewed coffee. We splurged on a membership to a nearby fitness center for workouts and showers, and we stocked up on candles for the inevitable power outages. New activities have included a Fulbright orientation program, and, for Karen, an introduction to the Tribhuvan University Psychology department. We've also sampled several cultural and historic sites in and outside Kathmandu. Along the way, we've encountered some cultural surprises that remind us how rooted we are in the familiar. Here are a few highlights:

A contingent of six US scholars and three of their partners, as well as several student researchers and English Teaching Assistants, are currently on Fulbright grants in Nepal. Lucky for us, the local Fulbright commission organized a week-long orientation for the new scholars and partners, which included talks by local sociologists, anthropologists, and journalists, along with a 15-hour introduction to the Nepali language. The language classes were particularly humbling, as may be evidenced by Karen's pouring over her homework assignment in this photo with a grin-and-bear-it countenance. The Nepali Sanskrit script is beautiful, but it takes studious perseverance to decipher. The photo to the right is our house number, which is 157. Easy, right?

One of the many cultural realizations we had was during a talk on Nepali ethnicities and castes. Although the country is now a secular state, it was for many years a monarchy that endorsed the caste system, from the high-caste Brahmans to the Dalits, i.e., untouchables. The system has been abolished by law for years, but discrimination is still present, as in all cultures it seems. Our Nepali teacher let us know that we Westerners are considered untouchables by many Hindus (the most prevalent religion here) because we eat beef. The cow is revered in Nepal, so Westerners are by definition impure. More on that later in this blog.

Locked office of Psychology Dept chair
Tribhuvan University (TU) is the first and by far the largest university in Nepal, established in 1959. It is a public university, and the political parties have active student groups that rule the roost in a way we can't conceive of in the US. As an example, the faculty and head administration decided last year to convert from an annual exam system to a semester system, in which students would receive grades based on attendance and performance in class rather than simply based on a final exam. This change was supposed to take effect in the spring semester, which began in February. However, some student political groups objected, reportedly because this would heighten the demands on students to perform and reduce the number of students who can enroll in classes (it's estimated that no more than 10% of registered students actually attend classes or complete them). In protest, the student groups put padlocks on the doors of all department chairs in TU, effectively stymieing the shift. At present, it's still unclear which system will be used.

Karen's class
Despite the political turmoil, classes opened last week, and Karen was asked (on a Friday) to begin teaching a graduate Psychology class not mentioned before (and in two days, on Sunday). Surprise! She is now teaching Psychotherapy and Counseling Theory. Classes are held every day but Saturday. Karen arranged to teach three days per week, with a local adjunct teaching the other three days. It's been a hustle to prepare, but the students are very receptive, so it's also rewarding. Those attending change from day to day, and some haven't shown up at all yet. Time will tell what they learn, but Karen's learning a lot!

Psych "bathroom"

The TU campus is stark by Western standards: unkempt buildings and lawns, no faculty offices, no working internet, primitive toilet facilities, etc. Still, the faculty are committed and collegial in spite of meager salaries and trying circumstances. Adjacent are a couple photos of the Psych dept.
We titled this blog "From the Sublime to the Ridiculous" to express the exhilarating, unexpected, and humorous experience of some of our sightseeing ventures. Travel any direction from Kathmandu reveals the dramatic landscapes just outside the urban cup of Kathmandu Valley. One recent trip was to Gorkha, a town about 6 hours drive west.The terraced hills, steep mountains and valleys, and narrow highways with hairpin turns and construction in many spots, made for a suspenseful ride when we weren't stopped in traffic jams. Gorkha is named for the famed Gurkha soldiers and was the site from which a king conquered and united many local tribes into a single kingdom that became Nepal. In Gorkha, we hiked up 1,500 steps for an hour at dawn to the former king's palace and temple, which provided incredible views of Mt Manaslu in the Himalayas. 

While in Gorkha, we visited some elementary schools where Fulbright English teaching assistants spend the year. They live in families' homes and seemed well acclimated to the intense cultural change. They introduced us to their students, who broke out in "Namaste!" when we appeared and chatted in broken English with pride and curiosity.

Strolling around Gorkha, we happened upon this sign, part of a public education campaign to encourage use of indoor toilets. Even in Nepal script, the picture says it all!

On our way back to Kathmandu, we stopped at one of the most celebrated temples in Nepal -- Manakamana. This one is unique for being so high up that it used to be reachable only on horseback by a 2-3 day trip or by the most hardy trekkers. In 1998, Austria financed a cable car that provides a spectacular view while riding up and down.
Ben going down while another car goes up
Here's a shot of
Maakamana Temple:

In addition to people cars, the cable system has a car for animals, at a cost of 220 rupees (about $2.20) for a goat, as shown in this sign shows. Also notice that the price for foreigners is USD $20, which is nearly 4 times that for Nepalis. That's typical at the tourist sites here, but we don't mind paying it, given the striking differences in standard of living for us and the locals. Also, the situation for the animals is far worse than us foreigners: for the animals it is a one-way trip. The goats, along with chickens and other animals that make the trip, are sacrificed after several turns of walking around the temple. The photo below shows one goat at the moment of truth, as it's about to go to the firing pit. It was quite revolting for us to see and even more revolting for the poor goat.

 We have many more stories to tell, but we'll save them for another blog. One last one, though, is to reassure you that not all the animals reach a sudden end like this poor goat. As we noted at the beginning of this post, cows are sacred in Nepal. In fact, so are monkeys and sheep. Cows roam freely at temple sites and down public streets. On quiet paths or on major roads, they meander with nary a care. The pictures below capture one holy creature.

As you might guess, we're having a great time. We invite your comments, and thank you for reading!

Karen and Ben

Sunday, January 12, 2014

From There to Here

Our first week in Kathmandu was filled new experiences – delightful, frustrating, puzzling, and hilarious. Our timing was pretty lucky, departing on New Year’s Eve day as the super-cold blast hit Chicago! Our challenges here are quite different than arctic weather -- the daily temps get up to around 60 F and nights down to about 30 (though Nepalis find this frigid, and it IS cold at night when there is no heat!). A few initial impressions about our home environs:

Our bedroom
The shower
Ben lounging on the roof with cistern, solar panels for hot water, and washing  

Our apartment is in the district of Lazimpat, about 30 mins walk north of Thamel, the central tourist district of Kathmandu. It is simple but sufficient, with two bedrooms and access to a sunny roof deck where, weather permitting, much daily life takes place for those lucky enough to have one. Bathing facilities are pretty primitive by Western standards – an open shower in the bathroom where the water drains into a hole in one corner, with help from a push mop. Fulbright sublets this apartment for us from a lovely French woman, Cecile, who lives downstairs and has been very helpful with orienting us.

The challenges here are the basics: power and water. Nepal depends on hydroelectric power, which is scarcest in the cold, dry months of Jan and Feb. The Nepal electric authority puts out a Load Shedding Schedule every few weeks with power outages by neighborhood groups. Currently we have 12 hours without power – a block of 5-9 hours off rotated with a similar number of hours on. We’re getting savvy about charging our LED devices, phone, computer, etc during the ON hours so we can use them after dark. Among our handy-dandy devices are our headlamps, as shown in the picture here.

We have a gas heater to warm our living room/office area in the evenings, and a back-up battery unit that supplies power to one light per room during the OFF periods. Our electrical/mechanical skills have been taxed learning to operate these devices, but we are gradually getting the hang of them. The kitchen has two gas burners for cooking and a refrigerator – no microwave or stove, too much power needed. Amazing what you can do without these conveniences, particularly thanks to our Nepali cook, June, who comes three days a week. More about her in another blog.

Water, another scarcity, is pumped up into a cistern for the house and needs to be replenished every few days. Showers are 5 minutes max, though we usually have the luxury of warm water for bathing from solar panels on the roof. We had a scare on Sat eve when the water ran out unexpectedly…turns out the cistern was empty, so we had to wait until the power came on late Sun morning to pump more water from the municipal well into the tank. All was not bad, though. Cecile brought us freshly made crepes while we waited for the power to come on!

We live on a narrow, curved street lined with stalls for fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, and other goods on the street level and living quarters above. Housing varies tremendously from basic shanties with aluminum siding or open fronts next to substantial three-story stucco or brick structures. Street vendors troll by on carts with oranges, vegetables, and other goods for sale, and there is a steady stream of locals on foot, bicycle, motorbike, as well as taxis and occasionally cars that require constant vigilance!
Lazing away in the sun

Animals are an integral part of daily life here. We awake around 4 am to a rooster’s crow, which sets the dogs to barking, then a couple hours of calm before the daily routine begins. Dogs are everywhere, many of them with mangled coats that tug at our hearts. During the day, many sleep in the sun beside the buildings, and they approach passersby for food or attention, with a few assertive growls on occasion. Our fellow Fulbrighter Tom has a pet monkey as a neighbor – it hangs out a window and screeches at the local traffic. Cute though it is, this monkey, which is chained so it stays indoors, attracted some wild monkeys that ate through the connection from the solar panels to the building where Tom lives, and as a result Tom has had no hot water since he arrived!

Road construction is everywhere
Street life here is a bustling maze of activity, whether on a small dirt path or a major thoroughfare. The streets are incredibly dirty, dusty, littered with garbage, and torn up, the traffic chaotic with motorbikes, cars, and carts racing by willy-nilly supposedly on a rough equivalent of the English traffic pattern, and us venturing down twisted paths as we begin to find our way around. We bought some local maps, which have been a great help. Police and guards with guns are prevalent everywhere, especially on the major thoroughfares. The only police action we have seen is a traffic cop on the street pulling over two motorcyclists who were “having words” in the midst of heavy traffic.

One clear bright spot has been the Nepali people – they are very warm, friendly, and helpful. We are greeted with “Nameste” by almost anyone with whom we make eye contact, and they are generous in helping us. About the only exception has been during our visit the US Embassy, for a security briefing where the Marine staff guards need some training in friendliness and professional demeanor! Taxi drivers are quick to ask us if we want a ride, figuring two white people roaming around is a sure sign of business. Thus far, we shoo them off and continue on our explorations.
A local watering hole

All said, it's a good beginning. The surprises are when the water is unexpectedly shut off, the battery back-up to the emergency lights doesn't seem to work, the space heater stops working, or other puzzles that we eventually figure out or put up with. We’ll look forward to hearing from you and will write another entry soon.


Karen and Ben