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