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