Animating Nepal – A Look Into a Burgeoning Outsource Industry

It is late evening, but inside Mickey & Donald’s Famous Sweet Shop the two are hard at work making Indian treats. There is a ‘Diwali Special’ going on, so Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck need 400 kilos of laddoos and 200 kilos of jalebis, as soon as possible. Donald toils over a pot of hot oil, making a valiant effort to get the perfect jalebi and Mickey is trying his best to mold scrumptious laddoo, but the duo can’t quite get either one right. The laddoos fall apart and the jalebis are unsatisfactory. Just as they’ve reached the point of ultimate despair, Minnie Mouse shows up with boxes of perfect Diwali sweets and saves the day. The three rush to the window just in time to see the sky light up with glittering fireworks that read “Happy Diwali.”

“This is our first international project,” says Suyogya Tuladhar, co-founder of Incessant Rain Animation Studios, as he clicks out of the computer screen. For this project, the animators at Incessant Rain in Kathmandu were hired by Disney, headquartered in California, to create this short film to introduce Disney characters to India.

The Diwali film is entertaining, artistic, charming and dynamic. It reflects a globalized chain that connects modern day Indian audiences with Mickey and Donald, classic American cartoon characters, originally created in 1928 and 1934 respectively. And it was all done from a four-story office building in Kathmandu. This is the future of animation. It is global, it is connected and it is exciting.

Nepal’s animation business is still in its infancy, but charging full speed ahead. In today’s interconnected world, location doesn’t matter like it used to. Where there is talent, there are jobs, thanks to 24/7 Internet connections, video-conferencing and tech-savvy people. In the past, Disney animators and visual effects specialists had to live near a major Hollywood studio to get to work. Now, Nepalis can do the same work sitting in Kathmandu. Nepal’s animators are part of a massive, and growing, whole: according to the National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM) of India, the 2010 animation industry is valued at $80 billion USD, a 36% increase in net worth from 2006.

The birth of Nepal’s animation industry is largely attributed to Kiran Joshi, a 17 year Disney veteran. Joshi, who worked on movies like the Lion King and Aladdin while in California, co-founded Incessant Rain with Tuladhar, who was formerly the CEO of a boutique graphics studio in Kathmandu. Since its inception, Incessant Rain, which focuses on 3D animation, has grown to employ 90 artists. The team does animated short films and visual effects work for studios in the United States, including on major Hollywood features.

According to Tuladhar, the ultimate goal is for Incessant Rain to create their own movies.

“Our value will be when we can develop our own content and intellectual property,” he says.

Animation is a succession of still images that, when viewed rapidly, give the illusion of movement. The art can be delineated into two types: two-dimensional (2D) and three-dimensional (3D) animation. Two-dimensional examples are Disney classics like The Jungle Book and Bambi. More contemporary films like Toy Story, Ratatouille and Up are 3D.

On a recent morning, the dark computer rooms at Incessant Rain were humming with activity. Casually-dressed, young Nepalis sat with Autodesk Maya, the most prevalent 3D animation software in the business, open on their screens. These graphic artists, many in their early 20s, were creating video games, adding visual effects to Hollywood movies and building digital models of humans.

The majority of Nepali animators, like the business itself, are quite young, but bursting with creative talent and ambition, which makes them internationally competitive. One such artist is Incessant Rain’s Suchan Raj Bajracharya, a 24-year-old project supervisor who has worked in the industry since he was 19.

Unlike many of his compatriots, Bajracharya didn’t go to art school or an animation academy to learn the trade. Fueled by an intense interest and passion, he taught himself painting, sculpting, drawing and, eventually, how to use the animation computer software.

“When I was a child I would hurry home from school just to watch 2D animation movies,” he remembers. “I used to play a lot of video games and my mother used to scold me. But this is what I do now. I make video games, animation and commercials. This is a dream come true for me.”

Bajracharya, who says his first inspirations were Disney characters and Japanese anime movies, started at Incessant Rain as a rigger. Riggers construct digital bones and joints for a character that will eventually enable them to move. Bajracharya shows an example: a frog that has been fully rigged with a digital skeleton. With a few clicks of the mouse he makes the frog wink, smile, swing his hips and bend his knees.

One thing that managers, studio owners, and 2D and 3D animators all agree on: the foundation and core of animation is art. To be a good animator, you must be a good artist.

According to Tuladhar of Incessant Rain, while animators must know the computer software, what is most important is that they are creative and have artistic vision and talent.

“Art has to drive the technology,” he says. “Not the other way around.”

Chhatra Hari Karki, managing director of Yeti Digital studio which does 2D productions, says his employees are almost all fine arts students or graduates. Two-dimensional animation especially relies on the artistic prowess of the animator, as every single frame must be hand-drawn.

“I always recommend people learn art first,” Karki says. He currently has 45 animators working at the studio, but is looking to expand the team to 400 within a few years.

Upstairs at Yeti Digital, dozens of 2D artists are drawing frames for the studio’s current project: a 110-minute animated film about the life and path to enlightenment of Buddha. The studio’s walls are covered with rough sketches of characters’ faces, bodies and costumes, as well as pencil depictions of scenery: landscapes of Lumbini, Buddha’s birthplace.

Umesh Khanal, 25, a fine arts student who has worked for Yeti Digital for a year-and-a-half says artists can finish between four and 20 frames per day if the scene involves detailed anatomical drawings. If scenes are less technical, they can complete up to 60. While almost all of his colleagues have studied drawing and painting, Khanal says they must also understand human anatomy and movement so as to make fictitious characters’ actions look life-like.

“Catching movement is a very interesting job,” Khanal explains. He says the artists often act out a scene they will later be animating and carefully observe one another to understand how a human body moves. “We watch the movements for reference,” he says, and then they transfer what they see into their digital art.

For decades, animation’s appeal has spanned the globe. The beauty of an animated character, like Mickey Mouse, is that he can entertain people from all countries, religions, races and socioeconomic levels. This appeal is why the animation business in Nepal, although young, is quickly expanding. With a burgeoning pool of talented artists, several established 2D and 3D studios and global connectivity, the sky is the limit for Nepal’s animators.

“You can create whatever you visualize in your mind,” says Tuladhar. “Just look at Disney characters. They came from just a concept. Today, those characters are still alive and entertaining people all around the world.”

 

This story was originally published in ECS Living.

 

One Sketch at a Time: How to Record Your Travels

This is a story I wrote for Ethos Magazine about University of Oregon Professor Ken O’Connell. Ken offers some great advice and inspiration for unique ways to record your travel experiences.

On a balmy April afternoon, artist Ken O’Connell sits in his office, chatting about art supplies, tiny Italian villages, and Japanese Anime conventions. Quickly, one thing becomes clear: Ken O’Connell would be the perfect travel companion. He isn’t content with simply snapping a photograph of a beautiful doorway or cathedral on his travels. Instead, he chooses to document what he sees in sketchbooks, seventy of them to be exact.

O’Connell’s collection of sketchbooks are individually numbered with the locations he visited while filling their pages. A peek inside the cover of number sixty-eight reads: “Canada, Japan, Germany, Oregon.” The pages burst with pencil drawings, vibrant watercolor scenes, haphazard notes to himself, various addresses, and stamps from around the world.
O’Connell’s life, like his sketchbooks, is packed with color and creativity. As a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s Art Department, he teaches digital arts classes and will begin a product design class in Portland summer 2010. He also is the president of his own company, Imagination International, Inc., which imports brightly colored Copic markers from Japan.

Continue reading here…

Understanding Genocide in Cambodia

For my latest guest post for Ethos Magazine, I explored the meaning of genocide with a focus on my trip to the Killing Fields, also known as Cheong Ek, just outside Phnom Penh in Cambodia.  I had always felt a sort of detachment when learning about the horrors or war and conflict because it was so difficult to actually understand what widespread suffering and death meant.  At the point in my life that I visited Cambodia’s Killing Fields, the only death I had known was that of my childhood cat.  To comprehend the murder of millions of people by the Khmer Rouge was so inconceivable that I just left it as an abstract thought in the back of my head.  But, when I found a lone tooth on the ground at Cheong Ek things quickly changed as I slowly became aware of the meaning of the life and death of one person.  To read more about my experience trying to understand genocide in Cambodia and beyond check out my story titled “The Tooth.”

BOOKS: Catfish and Mandala

I’d been wanting to read Catfish and Mandala: A Vietnamese Odyssey for several years now, so when I saw a used copy in a Kathmandu bookstore, I immediately snatched it up. I have not found many pieces of travel literature that focus on Vietnam and lately I’ve been especially interested in learning and reading about the Vietnam War, the country’s particular brand of communism and the economic changes that are rapidly taking place from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham served as a spectacular base and jumping off point for further research and learning about the Vietnam War. This book was the perfect place to begin my quest to truly understand this time period in Vietnam. Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s story about his deeply personal journey from his home California back to his birthplace in Vietnam. Pham was a child of the Vietnam War and his parents fled the country when he was around 6 years old. With a bicycle and a vague idea that returning to Vietnam after several decades as an immigrant in the United States would clear up some of the conflict that the uprooting created within his family, Pham departs from California with very little money and very few plans, expect that he wanted to bike ride from Saigon to Hanoi and visit his birthplace in between.

When I began Catfish and Mandala I thought the majority of the book would be dedicated to Pham’s actual bicycle journey in Vietnam. In reality, while the trip makes up a central role in the plot, the real meat of the book intertwines Pham’s troubled recent family history, told from both his point of view and from the point of view of his parents, who sacrificed a great deal for their children to get them safely out of Vietnam to a new life in America.

Catfish and Mandala is an important read for several reasons. First, it offers a very personal back story about the Vietnam War that I feel, especially as an American, I have heard very little about. I think it is important to understand wars and conflict on a larger scale, but to truly get a sense of what was going on in the country at that time, one must understand what was happening on a micro level, with specific people and individual family units. I had a similar feeling about First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, which is about the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid to late 70s.

The second reason I think this is am important read, especially for Americans, is that it wonderfully illustrates the trials and tribulations of immigrants in the United States. Through Pham’s storytelling, we come to understand the economic and emotional strains that immigrant families experience in the United States. The reality for the Phams is, as often seems to be, quite different from what they dream America would be like while in Vietnam. This is often a sentiment I cannot really explain accurately when speaking with Nepalis who view the U.S. as some sort of bastion of hope and perfection, somewhere that if they can possibly move to, will be the solution to all their problems. In reality, many Nepalis and other immigrants who end up in the U.S. after much dreaming, work low-paying, low-skill jobs that many Americans do not want to do themselves. They are also isolated from their family and the tight-knit support system of their home country (for a further look into this issue, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a great read). While many of the issues I hear about regarding immigrants to the U.S. deal with people who come illegally from Mexico, I think it would behoove Americans to read Catfish and Mandala to get a deeper understanding about the realities of an immigrant family in U.S.

I highly recommend Catfish and Mandala for those interested in both a broad and a personal history of the Vietnam War years. Pham’s words are carefully crafted and his story is poignant. This is an important book that puts into perspective recent Vietnamese history, as well as challenges faced by immigrant families in the U.S. Pham’s epic bicycle journey through Vietnam, of course, adds great adventure and texture to the book, which in the end, weaves together history, travel narrative and family lineage tales from abroad.

Get Old in Nepal and Become a God: Celebrating Janku

Patan Durbar Square was teeming with tourists as the mid-afternoon, autumn sun beat down on us all from above. There were people from everywhere: Spaniards with their signature (and rather eccentric) hair style of a shaved head with several long dreadlocks hanging down their backs, stodgy Germans muttering something underneath their breath about the old Nepali men staring at them and Americans, easily recognizable by their shorts, tennis shoes and starch-white tube socks pulled half-way up their shins. Everyone, Americans, Spanish, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, seemed to have a multi-thousand dollar DSLR camera hanging around their necks and everyone seemed to be snapping the same pictures: Krishna Mandir temple, the ancient bell, the skyline full of fluttering pigeons and the old Nepali “milk man,” who actually just wanders around Patan Durbar Square with two empty tin cans attached to a wooden pole, looking very “authentic” and asking tourists if they would like to take a photo of him in exchange for some rupees.

I sat on a nearby bench, curiously watching the human comedy of tourists and locals unfolding in front of me, trying to guess if the woman over there with the ridiculously revealing tank-top was Italian or Spanish, and if the guy to my left, mousey and gaunt, was from Russia or Britain. Suddenly, a racket of horns, trumpets and drums jostled me out of my languid tourist-watching session. Patan Durbar Square is never quiet, but the din was rather unusual even for this central square.

I immediately got up and went to investigate. I peered down the long “sidewalk” area that goes from one side of Patan Durbar Square to the other, passing most of the major temples on the way. In the distance I saw a mass of people, dressed to the nines, the women in sparkling saris and the men in freshly pressed shirts and slacks, carrying some sort of colorful palanquin. As the procession, complete with a full band, approached, I noticed that inside the palanquin was an old, gray-haired woman. She wore a colorful crown with turquoise peacock feathers tucked into it and a gold and red tailored sari. On her forehead was a large red tika, with smaller orange and black tikas above and below the main red one. As a number of men carried her through Patan Durbar Square, the woman lounged back on cushy pillows and peered out through sparkling garlands that adorned her seat.

“What in the world?” I wondered to myself as I snapped photos of the whole scene.

I noticed a middle-aged British couple five feet to my left who seemed to be listening to a Nepali tour guide explain what was going on. Like the good budget traveler that I am, I nonchalantly inched closer to the British couple to “accidentally” listen in on the information they were gleaning from their guide. My eavesdropping strategy worked and I learned that the procession was to celebrate this woman’s “janku,” which is a sort of special birthday ceremony that can happens five times and begins at the age of 77. This woman, it turned out, was celebrating her first janku with her family, for she had just turned 77 years, 7 months, 7 days, 7 hours, 7 minutes and 7 seconds old. Supposedly, said the Brits’ guide, this was the exact time when the procession began, which would wind all over Patan. When the 77 janku, or birthday, begins, the whole family gathers around their wise old relative, treats them to a grand procession, decks them out in fancy clothes and worships them like a god. Basically if you reach 77 and are part of Nepal’s Newari community, you’ve now reached god status.

“Wow!” I thought. “Getting old here is awesome!” I decided I wouldn’t mind spending my 77th birthday in Nepal, if, that is, I can make it that far.

I later came home to read more about the janku celebrations. The janku festivities are a unique part of Newari culture in Nepal (Newaris are considered the indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu region). This special ceremony can happen five times total in a life span, given you don’t live past 106. It happens for 77 years, months, days, etc…, 88 years, 99 years, and also for specific times during the 83rd and 105th year corresponding to a certain number of full moons that the person has seen in his or her life.

Here are some photos from the 77th year janku procession:
Above: The procession approaches from a distance.  At this point I could only tell that the group was carrying some sort of colorful palanquin.
Above: The army of family members parades through Patan Durbar Square with their 77-year-old grandmother.
Above: The men headed the procession.
Above: After the men came a group of women all wearing matching red and gold saris.  I’m not sure what the significance of this is, but I guessed that maybe these women were in the immediate family of the 77-year-old granny.
Above: After the red and gold saried women came another group of women wearing sparkling, solid colored saris.
Above: The women carrying up the rear of the procession.
Above: The woman of the day, carried on a colorful palanquin by her family members.

Above: This woman made it to 77 and now she’s basically a god! Awesome.
Above: The birthday girl, celebrating her first “janku” at 77 years old.  If she’s lucky, she’ll be able to celebrate 4 more of these (if she can life to 106).
Above: The procession passes by me in Patan.

Above: Patan Durbar Square after the procession passed through.

BOOKS: The Lady and the Monk

I was quite excited to read another of Pico Iyer’s books, as his series of essays on Asian cultures titled Video Night in Kathmandu is one of my all-time favorites. The Lady and the Monk takes place over four seasons, one year starting in autumn, in Kyoto, Japan. He travels to Kyoto with the intention to live a monkish existence, renouncing some aspects of the material world with the hopes of further understanding Zen Buddhism, Japan and himself. After a short stay at a local Kyoto monastery with several peculiar Japanese monks, Iyer quickly moves into another ascetic space that suits him better: a small guesthouse full of interesting, strange and eccentric foreign characters. After Iyer moves out of the first monastery, I felt that his mission to understand Japan, the culture and the people took on a new character that focused less on Zen Buddhism and more on the uniquely mysterious individual and collective psyche of the country.

Iyer soon meets Sachiko, a Japanese woman who seems to want to both embrace and spurn the Japanese ideals set out for her as a woman, a mother and a wife. Sachiko both conforms and rebels against the rigid cultural rules set out for her by her home country and her family, which makes for some intriguing conflict, with Iyer as the “Western” intermediary between Sachiko’s reality and fantasy.

The Lady and the Monk was like one long poem, perhaps overly flowery at some points, but I think the flowery language was meant to reflect the deep aesthetic appeal of Japanese society. When I think of Japan, I think of utmost simplicity, but also an incredible sense of beauty that emerges from that simplicity. Iyer captures this feeling quite well, too well sometimes, mimicking the soft pinkness of a cherry blossom, the curve of a flower petal and the uncomplicated solitude of a Buddhist monastery with his words. Iyer’s immersion into Japan, which seems as complete as can be for a foreigner, allowed me to see Japan from a new perspective through his discerning and astute eyes.

In the beginning, I was a bit confused about Iyer’s goal to become a Zen Buddhist monk. It was almost a haphazard mission, just some reason to go to Japan, live there and write for a year (not a bad mission). He doesn’t fare very well in the monasteries or the temples, only staying for short periods of time. His understanding of Zen Buddhism and the Japanese culture’s relation to the religion mostly comes from other people he meets, mostly Westerners, as well as a plentitude of Japanese literature.

Ninomaru Garden, Kyoto, Japan: Simply beautiful, beautifully simple. Photo by: jimg944

I got a deep sense of loneliness from reading this book, but I think that was the point. Maybe the feeling is was not exactly loneliness per say, but it surely was solitude. For example, when Iyer is walking through quiet streets, lanes covered in fallen pink cherry blossoms, or when he is exploring the somewhat creepy and dark sex and “entertainment” industry in Japan. It is lonely, but that seems to be what Pico Iyer is looking for: loneliness and solitude as tools to help him discover himself and more about Zen Buddhism and Japan.

Sachiko’s character, the conflicted young woman whom Iyer develops a deep friendship (and maybe more?), was one that I never truly connected with. She remained a mystery to me and her conflict between wanting to take on Western cultural values, but being stuck with the Japanese ones was awkward, mostly because Iyer describes Sachiko is quite childish. The relationship between Iyer and Sachiko was a main point of confusion for me. Iyer is obviously highly educated and incredibly eloquent and I often wondered at the nature of he and Sachiko’s relationship. How did he not get frustrated with her girlishness? How did he not get frustrated with their limited ability to converse? Were they just friends, or lovers too? I found some sentences that I thought could be taken as allusions to them having sex, but my suspicions were never confirmed. I almost feel like their relationship is one of parent and child, but at the same time they are friends and other times they share very intimate moments. He introduces to her to many things about Western society, and she, mostly unknowingly, introduces him to things about Japan, but the conclusions about Japanese society are all his own, not hers at all.

Partway through Iyer’s stay in Kyoto, Sachiko decides she wants to change her life drastically and I felt that Iyer was the main disrupting force, although he never blatantly acknowledges it. I wonder if he felt bad? He completely changed the course of her family’s life: she divorces her husband who we know nothing about, and she takes on a goal of becoming an international tour guide, which also surely affects her relationship with her two young children. I wondered: What about the children and the husband? Iyer doesn’t acknowledge this much.

The Lady and the Monk was especially interesting to me because I’ve spent a good portion of my life studying Japan and Japanese language (almost 15 years). Along with language study, I’ve taken a number of Japanese literature classes and read many of the works Iyer touches on in his book like The Tale of Genji, Sei Shonagon’s The Pillowbook and The Tale of the Heike. After reading The Lady and the Monk, I feel I’ve gained new perspective on classical Japanese literature and I see these pieces with what feels like fresh eyes. If I were teaching a Japanese literature course, I would have my students read The Lady and the Monk as part of the course, preferably before reading the great volumes of Japanese literature. For anyone interested, The Lady and the Monk, along with classical Japanese works by Sei Shonagon and Murasaki Shikibu, along with contemporary writers like Haruki Murakami, would be a great collection and series to read to gain a broad understanding of the Japanese psyche, which in some ways has not changed much from 1,000 years ago.

The Lady and the Monk makes me realize how painfully little I actually understand about Japanese society, which is sort of shocking considering I’ve spent the majority of my life studying the language and the culture. In school, we learned about the culture like tea ceremonies, but not about any of the true nuances of Japan, which probably can’t be understood unless one lives there. I’ve been thinking about living in Japan myself (maybe next year?), but this book makes me wonder if I would actually have a good time there, or if I would simply leave frustrated by the challenge of never being able to truly permeate the Japanese shell that exists in so many aspects of life and work.

One of my favorite parts of the book is when Iyer leaves Japan for Taiwan and Bangkok. I like his descriptions of the assault to his senses after he is been in the clean, sanitized and hard Japan for so long. It was almost the feeling I had (but in reverse) when after 5 months in Nepal, I flew into the Singapore airport. The shine, the sparkle, the glinting taxis, the lack of overpowering smells: it was a wonder.

Having finished this book, I feel like I’m now craving to truly know more about the Japan that exists behind the hard surface.

Snapshot Story: Kite Flying During Dasain

For the past two weeks, the clear, post-monsoon blue skies of Kathmandu have been almost continuously speckled with soaring kites. There are kites everywhere: flying in the sky, caught on trees and electrical wires, in the hands of young boys dashing through the streets and displayed in store windows. I’ve noticed that many small shops that sell kitchen and household goods converted during Dasain (Nepal’s largest and most auspicious festival) into kite shops, with large and small kites displayed in their windows, as well as spools of string and thin wire to attach to the kites. The ubiquity of kites in Kathmandu at the beginning of October is a sign of the coming festivities and provides a reason for locals, both young and old, to get excited about the great family gatherings, religious pujas and feasts that are to come in mid-October. Kites herald in the festive, carefree spirit that I’ve found accompanies Dasain and even after the celebrations are over, boys flying kites and participating in kite competitions can be seen everywhere.

I think kite flying during Dasain happens for several reasons: to celebrate the end of the monsoon, to raise spirits before the big festival and just because it’s fun and the weather is favorable. I read that it is believed that flying kites in Nepal during this time is supposed to send a message to the gods to bring no more rain, but I think that the children who participate in this activity do so for the pure pleasure of seeing their plastic and wood kites soaring high in the autumn skies.

Below: In Patan’s Durbar Square this little guy spent about an hour trying to get his kite up into the sky. After some time and effort, he was finally able to make it take flight.




PHOTOS: Tika and Jamara With the Tamrakars

Dasain, the biggest festival in Nepal, is now coming to a close after several weeks of festivities, feasting, animal sacrifices, family gatherings and pujas. After the past 10 days, witnessing the happenings of Dasain, I feel like I have truly gained a more thorough understanding of Nepalese culture and the Hindu religion. Before Dasain began, I was pondering leaving Kathmandu for my 10-day vacation from work, but now I am quite glad that I stuck around the city, for I was able to get a more complete picture of the festival and how it is celebrated.  To leave Nepal without understanding Dasain would be like leaving the U.S. without every knowing Thanksgiving.

Like much to do with Nepal’s culture and religion, there are (at least it seems to me) innumerable rituals and prayers that must be done in specific ways, dedicated to certain gods. I often ask my Nepali friends why things are done the way they are and they usually give me long, detailed explanations for even the most minute bits of religious rituals (for example, why something is red, why another thing is yellow, why one god holds a spear, why another god has ten hands, why you wear a red thread here and a white thread there, etc…). From what I gather, in its most simplest form, Dasain is meant to celebrate the victory of the gods over the demons. In particular, Nepalis worship Durga, a goddess with ten hands, during Dasain and offer her all sorts of gifts and hundreds of thousands of animals in the form of animal sacrifices.

Each day of Dasain, which lasts about 15 days, has a special significance and certain rituals or pujas are done on that day. This past Sunday I was invited by my co-worker, Sachin the magazine marketing exec, to celebrate Tika and Jamara with his family who live in a traditional Newari-style house near Patan Durbar Square. I, of course, jumped at the opportunity to celebrate Dasain with a family, because celebrating with a family is the only way to truly get a good glimpse of the festivities. There are ways to observe Dasain outside the home, but most of the action takes place behind closed doors, between family members.

The Tika and Jamara ceremony is reserved for the ninth day of Dasain.  After celebrating the puja with the Tamrakars, the “kids” of the family (anyone under age 25) roamed the winding lanes of Patan, taking in the sights and checking out the animal sacrifices in Patan’s Durbar Square.  While were we walking, almost every single person we passed also had their own tika and jamara from their family ceremony.  For the entire day, almost every person in Kathmandu had a giant tika glob on their forehead and light green barley sprigs tucked behind their ear or woven into their hair.  The contrast of the red and green against the carmel Nepali skin tones made the buzzing streets even more ablaze with color than normal.

The tika (red dot) is given by the elder members of the family.  The tika paste is made of rice grains, vermillion powder and curd or yogurt.  The mixture of the three items makes for a thick red paste that, surprisingly, stays attached to the forehead for most of the day.  To get a tika from the family elders is like accepting blessings and wishes for good fortune and health for the coming year.  The green sprigs, the jamara, are young barley grasses.  On the first day of Dasain, barley seeds are planted in the family’s special puja or prayer room and are grown in sands taken from one of Nepal’s holy rivers for nine days.  After nine days the young jamara sprigs are harvested and are said to then hold the blessings of the ten-handed Goddess Durga.  They are now ready to be given to the family members along with bright red tikas.

Another co-worker recently wrote about Tika and Jamra festival for the magazine we work for.  She wrote that celebrating Dasain without jamara would be like celebrating Christmas without a Christmas tree.  I thought this was an apt description of the plant’s significance.

Celebrating Tika and Jamara with the Tamrakars was an excellent experience that allowed me to further understand what Dasain is all about.  It was nice to be around such a warm and welcoming family and to take part in their festivities.  Here are some photos of the Tika and Jamara ceremony:

Above: The Tamrakar elders sat against the wall with their tika paste (red powder, rice grains and yogurt mixed together) and gave each member of the family tika on the middle of their forehead.  The tika is a symbol that the elders give their blessings to the family for the coming year.
Above: Sachin, my co-worker who invited me to his family’s Tika and Jamara puja, gets a tika from his father.
Above: The necessities to complete a successful Tika and Jamara puja.  Each elder of the Tamrakar family had a tray of rice grains, pastes, powders, red threads and jamara (barley) sprigs.
Above: Sachin’s cousin with a tika on her forehead.  Most of the women were decked out from head to toe in red, from red saris to red necklaces, to celebrate this special day of Dasain.
Above: Sachin’s father and mother.  Notice the jamara tucked behind Sachin’s father’s ear.  The men usually tucked the barley sprigs behind their ears and the women laced them in their hair bands.
Above: Me getting in on the action, receiving a tika from one of Sachin’s aunts.  The whole family got quite a kick out of me being there.  Luckily, I wore a red shirt for the occasion, which allowed me to blend in a bit more easily.
Above: After I got my tika, Sachin’s aunt handed me several jamara sprigs and a strand of red thread.  She then did a small prayer for me so I would have good fortune and good luck for the coming year.
Above: A few of Sachin’s cousins with their lovely red tikas.
Above: This little guy was the youngest member of the family.  He was quite perplexed at my presence, probably thinking I looked rather alien-ish compared to all the other sari-clad women of the family.
Above: Tikas are given by all elder family members, so by the end of the day, those with large families end up having MASSIVE red tikas on their forehead.  Here, I get another tika from Granny Tamrakar, the most senior member of the family.
Above: After Granny Tamrakar gave me a tika, I was gifted a 5 rupee note by Sachin’s aunt.  Notice the jamara sprigs they put in my hair band.
Above: Sachin’s family lives in an awesome traditional Newari-style, five story house near Patan Durbar Square.  Dasain is a time when the entire extended family gets together, many people coming from far-off villages.  Here you can get a feeling of how cramped the house was with family members.
Above: Sachin’s cousin gives the youngest member of the family a tika.
Above: After the Tika and Jamara ceremony, all the “kids” of the family jumped on motorbikes and headed to a temple near Godavari, about a 45 minute ride out of the Kathmandu city center.  Here I am with Sachin’s cousin, Shreeya, and his younger brother.
Above: Sachin’s cousin gives Shreeya, age 16, a tika.  Shreeya says she aspires to be come an international flight attendant, but her mother is pushing for her to become a doctor.  She says if air-hostessing doesn’t work out, she’ll try out the world of modeling.
Above: Tikas all around for the youngsters of the family.  Each family member gets a tika from their elders, so this means the children got tikas from almost everyone present.
Above: After we all got tikas, we had traditional Newari snacks which we ate out of dried leaf bowls (very eco-friendly!).  The snacks included beaten rice (churra), bananas and beans.  Above, the Tamrakar men enjoy their breakfast.  Sachin, my co-worker, is the one in the white collared shirt and his younger brother is the one in the sports jersey.

Above: After the Tika and Jamara ceremony we walked all around Patan and watched a “mini-drama” at one of the temples where an old man pretends to be a demon and other old men chase him around, eventually relegating him inside an old house. It was quite entertaining, but everyone muttered that it was too short.

BOOKS: Thunder From the East

Kristof and WuDunn, both journalists for the New York Times, authored this book about the rise, fall and rise again of East Asia. This book is almost ten years old now, so it’s a bit dated, but remains an great resource of information about Asia as a world mega-power. Kristof, true to his writing style, includes many anecdotes and narratives from his own travels in Asia. Both Kristof and WuDunn have traveled far and wide in the region and, although they acknowledge that Asia can never be fully understood as an outsider, offer some spectacular insight into Asia cultures and practice. For example, they aim to uncover what has held Asia back economically in the past few centuries (political issues, extreme poverty, failure to utilize women as a resource, etc…).

Thunder From the East is a great starting ground for those interested in exactly how, when and where the Asian economic crisis of 1992 started. The husband-wife team literally trace the collapse to a specific date in Thailand in 1992. From Thailand, the money devaluation, uncertainty and chaos began to spread like wildfire around Asia, reaching places like Indonesia and Japan.

Thunder From the East is a good read for a general overview on recent history, culturally and economically, of East Asia with a focus on Indonesia, Thailand, Japan and China. This book is a good springboard into further readings on the 1992 Asian economic crisis, as well as Asia’s position as a global power.

My New Bike: The Bumpy Road to Freedom

Two weeks ago I sat in a surprisingly clean clinic near Durbar Marg (where all Kathmandu’s beautiful and rich people go to see and be seen), listening to a surprisingly young Nepali doctor give me his prognosis

“Tendonitis,” he said resolutely, as he scanned my chart. “No running for six weeks.”

“Six weeks? Are you sure about that?” I asked.

“Six weeks,” he confirmed with a nod.

I limped away from the International Clinic crestfallen with a 5-day supply of anti-inflammatories and a blunted sense of rage that I had so over-run my foot since arriving in Nepal that now I was sentenced to a month and a half of inactivity.

Spurred by my foot injury I decided to buy a bike. Purchasing a bicycle was something I’d been mulling over for about a month (On one hand: Wheels! On the other hand: Kathmandu traffic…). A group of young German volunteers who are working with a friend’s NGO recently arrived in the city and quickly bought bikes for themselves. I’d been envying their cycles for some time, so while walking home the other day, instead of turning right to go home, I turned left to Patan Dhoka (Patan Gate), where I had heard was a good bicycle shop.

I passed through Patan Dhoka and made a bee line for the first bike shop I could find: K.B.’s Cycle Traders. It was a small shop, the outsides covered in a layer of dust like everything else in Kathmandu, but the insides bursting full of new bicycles, both small and large.

“I need I bike,” I told the slick man who bounded up to help me.

“Ok, what kind you like? We have everything. Everything best quality,” he said.

We quickly picked one out, an ‘Everest’ brand mountain bike, and he wheeled the shining cycle next door so the tank-top clad attendants could screw in pedals and attach a bell.

“Best quality,” he assured me as I hand over 6,000 of my hard-earned rupees.

“Where from? China or India?” I asked.

“China,” he replied. “Best quality.”

The bike looked pretty good to me. It smelled of new tires and freedom.

I spend the next three hours swerving through back alleys in Patan, sailing down any patch of smooth pavement I can find, bumping over pot holes and avoiding treacherous open sewers. After two weeks of no running, pumping my legs, breaking a sweat and feeling the air on my face is exhilarating.

After I exhaust most of the streets and alleys in Patan, I cycle over to Basanta’s tea shop, which, however cliché it may sound, I can only liken to the Cheers bar of Kathmandu, but instead of beer, we drink cup after cup of milk tea. As expected the whole crew is there. I proudly drive up and drag my bike inside.

“I got a bike!” I proclaim. It is supposed to be my “Ta-Da!” moment and I’m unable to wipe the silly grin off my face. My friends courteously admire my bike for 10 seconds and then go back to their tea cups and Surya cigarettes.

Basanta, the tea shop owner who seems to constantly be in a marijuana haze and has one very long pinky finger nail painted blue, asks my friends in Nepalese how much I paid for it.

“About 6,000,” I tell them. (Around $83 USD).

He tells them he got almost the same one as me for 4,500 rupees. I sigh, but don’t really care. Nepalis are perpetually telling me how much less they paid for X, Y and Z. I know that paying more is just an occupational hazard of having white skin.

The next day, I spend the morning riding all around the city. I ride from my house in Sanepa all the way across town to the Northfield Cafe in Thamel just because they have good drip coffee and just because I can.

Several hours later, in the mid-afternoon sun I head back to my side of town to meet everyone at Basanta’s. Twenty minutes into my ride I’m in the middle of Durbar Marg, flying down the pavement, dodging motorcycles and taxis, dogs and potholes, savoring my freedom and then I hear a sound. With one swift exhalation, a puff and a wheeze, my Chinese-made freedom evaporates into the dusty Kathmandu air. I have one very flat front tire. Almost as quickly as my Chinese bike had given me liberation from my own two feet, it was gone. China giveth and China taketh away.

“Best quality my ass,” I mumble as I drag my shiny, less-than-12-hour-old mountain bike to the side of the road.

As I heave this hulk of a bicycle, this two-wheeled menace that brought me so much joy in the past half-day, I stew about the bike shop, the bike salesman, my own hurt pride and Chinese products in general. Although I pass by dozens of bike repair shops, I’m determined to walk all the way across town in the sticky 2 p.m. heat to revisit K.B.’s, where I bought the cycle, and make a scene about the bike’s poor quality. I refuse to pay even one rupee to get the tire fixed, as I just paid 6,000 yesterday.

The minutes tick by and sweat starts to bead on my brow as I walk alongside the congested highway with my bike. Walking from Durbar Marg to Patan Dhoka is a lot farther than I thought. Buses brimming full of passengers chug by me, spewing black smog in my face. I weave through traffic and the city’s cacophony of horns, my energy draining by the minute.

As I walk further the deflated tire and tube slowly become unattached to the front rim, which means it’s becoming increasingly difficult to even push the bike. Over particularly rough and broken pieces of sidewalk I resort to carrying the frame on my shoulder. Despite its heft, I chuckle to myself that they actually dare call this piece-of-crap a “mountain bike.” The thing would surely disintegrate within minutes if I actually took it on a Himalayan trail.

I’m now almost completely drenched in sweat, pushing, dragging, heaving, towing my Everest cycle, which is still perfectly shiny and new, minus the front tire. There’s hardly a speck of dirt or mud anywhere to be seen on the frame.

As I struggle, spindly Nepali and Indian men whiz by me on their ancient, rusty, one-speed bikes that work like a charm. Me, wearing my turquoise Dri-Fit Nike T-shirt with a crisp white swoosh embroidered on the front. Them, zooming by one by one wearing cotton collared shirts, threadbare around the elbows, and worn cotton pants, thin as rice paper. They look at me and my shiny new, broken-down bike smugly.

An hour-and-a-half later I finally arrive at K.B.’s, hair wet with sweat, face black with smog and front tire almost completely off the rim. I’ve had 90 minutes to think of all sorts of things I could say to the bike salesman, defaming his business, accusing him of selling faulty products, demanding that he give me two new tires, commanding a full refund.

The salesman bounds out, looking me up and down, a little surprised that I’m back so soon. I glare at him as I wipe my forehead with the back of my hand and shake off the sweat.

“Flat tire,” I say as I point an accusatory finger at the sad-looking front rim.

“Oh! Puncture!” he says, as if I didn’t already know that it was a puncture. He darts around with a kind of bubbly vigor and feigned innocence that makes the past 90 minutes of built up annoyance slowly evaporate with the absurdity of it all.

“Yes. Puncture,” I say.

“Oh! Haha! So funny,” he says as he paces back and forth on his feet. He quickly grabs my bicycle and drags it next door for the same attendants to fix my tire. “So funny,” he says and looks back at me with a wink and a smile. “Just ten minutes, new tire! Best quality!” he says.

I collapse on a stone ledge across from K.B.’s and wait for my tire to be fixed. A sinewy middle-aged man with a pock-marked face swiftly replaces the tube and the tire and tightens a few loose screws while he’s at it.

Just five minutes later, the bike salesman hands me back my Everest. All the scenes I envisioned on my long trek to the shop, the demands and the defamations are long gone. I flash him a smile as he again assures me: “Best quality Chinese!”

“Thanks!” I say and hop on my bike, threading and maneuvering through the cramped lanes of Patan, leaving K.B.’s behind and once again savoring the tinny sound of my bike’s bell and the grind of the gears shifting.

The wind quickly dries the sweat on my face and I pedal to Basanta’s, tire pumped full and pride restored. Freedom at last.