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