Monthly Archives: September 2010

Taking Pictures of People: How to Get the Perfect Shot

Let’s say you’re strolling through a crowded market nestled deep in the heart of Old Kathmandu. The buildings are crammed and crumbling, giving the area a weathered, medieval look. There are vegetable vendors lining the streets. They’re sitting on ragged tarps covered with a landscape of vegetables stacked in pyramids. There are red tomatoes, yellow lemons, some green bumpy vegetable that you don’t know the name of, dark purple eggplant and heaps of green chillies. Out of the corner of your eye, leaning against an ancient-looking door frame is an equally as ancient-looking woman. The lines and wrinkles on her face probably hold more stories than an entire library. From her ears drip traditional gold jewelery. In her hand she holds a beedi cigarette, which she takes long pulls of every minute. The woman is perfectly framed within the rectangular door setting. “This looks like a National Geographic shot!” you think. You grab for your camera, but hesitate for a second. “Should I take a picture? Would it be rude? Should I ask? The shot would be so amazing, though!” And in that few seconds of apprehension, the woman and the possibility of a photo have vanished.

Some version of this scenario has happened to me many times. I’ll see someone that I really want to take a photo of and then in the minutes of mulling it over, the person will move or disappear. I usually carry my camera everywhere and have taken thousands of photos on my travels through Asia over the last three years. Looking back through my photo library, out of thousands, I can probably pick 100 really, really good ones. Out of those 100, probably 80% are of people. I’m a strong believer that people make the best photo subjects. Obviously Mt. Everest is one of the most majestic spots on earth, but are you really going to capture its essence and beauty in a photograph. Probably not. Forests and lakes are spectacular sites to visit, but, honestly, landscape photos can get boring quickly. After some time, a lake is just a lake. A mountain range will always look dwarfed and less amazing than it did in person.

But people never get boring. It is the people who live in a place that bring the whole scene to life. When I travel I like to see what the people are doing. I want to see how they live their lives, what they do everyday, how they spend their mornings, what they eat, where they work, who their children are, what they wear and what they do for fun. Ultimately, I want to see how other people’s lives around the world differ from my own in the United States. After we strip away the religion, the food choices, the morals and ethics, the language and the education, we’re all the same: just people. I think that is why people photos are so interesting: because when we see someone else’s eyes and face, we can inherintily relate to them, no matter if they are the nomads of Tibet, the city slickers of Seoul, the coffee-shop owners of Singapore or the cowgirls of the American West. Take a look at some of the most successful travel photographers like Steve McCurry. Almost every single one of his famous photos is of a person. Perhaps his most famous photo, the one of the Afghan girl staring out of frame with hauntingly green eyes, is noteworthy for many reasons, but mainly, we can relate to her through her eyes.

Although pictures of people are probably the most interesting and beautiful mementos from travel, they are also the most difficult to take. I often think about what it would be like if I were on the other side of the camera, the subject of the photos rather than the photographer. I would absolutely NOT appreciate having my picture snapped as I went about my daily life, eating breakfast and going to work. So, how can you get good photos of people without being intrusive, rude or imposing? It is a fine art that I am learning slowly but surely. Practice makes it slighly easier, but I still have an awkward feeling whenever I am trying to get a close-up photo of a person’s face. Here are some thing’s I’ve learned in my practice and study of photography that will help when trying to get good photos of people:

1)Ask

This can be difficult, especially when there is a language barrier, but it is the most surefire way that you won’t upset your proposed photo subject. If you don’t know how to ask, or the person doesn’t understand your question, just point at your camera and point at them? They’ll probably understand that you want to take a picture and respond accordingly.

2) Offer Money, When Appropriate

I think if you are going to take a picture of someone, it is sometimes fair that you pay a bit of money to them. I usually never pay anyone in the city, but if I am trekking or in the countryside and see someone I want to photograph, I’ll take their picture and then give them whatever small change I have in my bag. Sometimes the person will straight away ask for money, but if not, it’s a nice gesture.

3) Learn How to Say “Can I Take Your Picture” in the Local Language

I asked my Nepali photographer friend how to say: “Can I take your picture?” in Nepalese. Learning this phrase in the local language can be helpful.  When you whip out the phrase in the local language, your potential photo subject may be more willing to agree if they feel that you have made an effort to learn a bit of their culture and language.

4) Read Body Language – if they look awkward, put the camera away

If you take your camera out and your proposed photo subject shrugs away, or starts looking awkward, just put the camera back and don’t take photos. Taking pictures of people, if they don’t agree to it, can be very rude and insensitive.

5) Be Sensitive and Don’t Encroach

There are certain situations that, no matter how photogenic they may be, you probably shouldn’t take a picture of. For example, a woman breastfeeding a child or an intimate moment between two people. I also think it is also necessary to be exceedingly sensitive when taking pictures of poor people or beggars.  I say do NOT take pictures of poor, destitute people just for fun (unless you are going to give them money).  If you are a photojournalist or another sort of professional photographer and you are taking these pictures for some assignment or larger purpose, then it can be alright.


Above: Aashish, one of the young monks at Trungram Monastery in Nepal.

Above: A group of Cambodian kids in the village outside of Battambang.


Above: Thuli Tamang, a 72-year-old woman carries grass to her village.

Above: The busy scenes at the vegetable market in Hoi An, Vietnam.

Above: The monks at Trungram Monastery in Sankhu, Nepal.

Above: Nepali school girls walking to morning classes in Pokhara.

Above: A farmer outside of Pokhara takes a tea break.

Above: Two farmer girls rest at their home outside Pokhara, Nepal.

Above: Two inquisitive girls from a small village in Nepal.

Above: Sadhus, the Hindu holy men, hang out and smoke ganja at Pashupatinath Temple in Nepal.


Above: A vegetable peddler on the streets of Kathmandu.

Above: Farmers harvest rice in Phimai in Northeastern Thailand.

Above: Two Akha women on the trail deep in the jungles of Northern Laos.

Above: A toothy child smiles beneath a big red tikka.

Above: A beggar asks for rupees as the Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu, Nepal.

PHOTOS: Seoul by Night

Long after the sun sets in Seoul, the city pulses frenetically. From the hulls of small restaurants comes the raucous sounds of friends and colleagues enjoying a round or two or three of soju, the country’s favorite distilled alcohol. Plumes of smoke waft onto the street from fiery Korean barbeques, covered with slabs of sizzling pork and beef. The petite women of Seoul, dressed to impress, parade up and down the streets, perfectly made-up and wearing impossibly high stilletos. Street vendors serve trays of spicy toppoki and bowls of steaming oysters. Seoul by night is an energetic, frenzied, eurphoric, non-stop spectacle.

Korea’s capital, like nowhere else I’ve ever seen, truly is the city that never sleeps. The nightlife thrives late into the night and into the early (and not so early) hours of the morning. (Yes, I had one night/morning in Seoul that lasted until 11 a.m.). A big part of understanding Seoul is to partake in the nightlife, but be warned: when enjoying Seoul by night it is necessary to pace oneself because young Koreans can easily stay up drinking, eating and enjoying themselves until the sun rises.

Above: Crowds flow through the neon-lit streets.
Above: The sun has just set in Seoul, which means the night is very, very young.
Above: Couples and friends stroll through the streets, many looking for a delectable restaurant to stop at.
Above: A couple decides what they want for dinner.  Many restaurants have displays of plastic food in front so potential customers can easily chose what they want.
Above: A plastic food display in Seoul.
Above: A couple sits at a street food vendor’s stall who is serving steamed shell fish.  The man pours fresh glasses of soju, the Korean distilled alcohol.
Above: Traffic flows smoothly as people return from work.
Above: A woman decides what she wants for dinner from a street vendor.
Above: One of the best things about Seoul by night are the neon lights.
Above: Bright lights, big city.
Above: The night is young and the revelry is just getting started.

Discovering Ethnic Diversity in Singapore

Singapore may not offer the same sense of rugged adventure and unknown exploration as other countries in the region, but a visit to the thriving metropolis can be equally as satisfying a trip to Thailand, Malaysia or Indonesia. One of the most fascinating aspects of Singapore society to observe is the multicultural, multifaceted diversity of the country. For a quick and easy peek at the diaspora living in Singapore, simply hop on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit) train at any stop. Grab a seat, sit back and spend an hour just people watching. You’ll see Singapore residents from all over Asia, and the world, who add to the spectacular diversity of the country.

The majority, around 74%, of the estimated 4,839,400 residents of Singapore are ethnic Chinese. 13.5% are ethnic Malays, 9% are from India 3% are from elsewhere. Although the majority of people living in Singapore are from China, Chinese is not the one official language. In fact, there are four official languages in Singapore including English, Mandarin Chinese, Malay and Tamil. Instead of singling out one language as the national language, the always diplomatic Singapore chose all four so as to include each of the three majority groups. English was kept as an official language after Singapore gained independence from the British in 1965 and Lee Kuan Yew decided it would be beneficial both economically and politically to continue using English for business and administration.

A walk through one of Singapore’s ubiquitous hawker center’s (street food markets) reveals the multilayered, multilingual aspect of the country’s diversity. In one stall a vendor might be mixing vats of black Hokkien Chinese coffee and speaking in a Chinese dialect. Across the food complex, in the halal section of the hawker center where Muslim men wearing taqiyah hats are making dough for roti, the melodic rhythm of Arabic or Malay can be heard. Down the lane in a stall selling fiery curries, the owner might hail from Kerala, India, and would be speaking in Tamil.

On a visit to Singapore you’re not going to find deep jungles or crumbling ruins, but you’ll find an incredible diversity of people, languages, foods and cultures. Observing the diaspora is a thrill in itself and visiting the many ethnic enclaves of the city is a great pleasure. Spend some time walking through hawker centers, cultural neighborhoods (like Chinatown, Little India and Arab Street), listen to the languages and you’ll understand an important and unique side of Singapore.

Singapore Tips and Ideas:
Here are some tips and ideas on things to do in Singapore to understand their multicultural society. Through a mix of street walks, gastronomic exploration, museums and ethnic neighborhood tours, you’ll leave Singapore with a more thorough understanding of the culture and the diversity.

*Visit Little India
Little India is perhaps my favorite area in Singapore. The Tekka wet market there is fantastic (although when I was there last summer it was closed for reconstruction). Spend some time walking through the lanes, the market and the main streets. Try a few Indian sweets and wash it down with a glass of milk tea.


Above: Men in Little India, Singapore. Photo by: William Cho

*Visit Chinatown
In certain parts, Singapore’s Chinatown is very touristy and can get a bit overwhelmed with people snapping photos of everything. Go a bit off the main drag and explore some of the Chinese medicine shops that are full of interesting herbs.

Above: A street scene in Chinatown, Singapore. Photo by: Khalzuri

*Ride the MRT
As I mentioned, riding the MRT around town is a great way to get a sneak-peek at the diversity of Singapore’s population.

Above: The Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (MRT).  Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Asian Civilizations Museum
This excellent museum is located in Boat Quay, across from the grandiose Fullerton Hotel. This museum doesn’t specifically focus on Singapore, but it is bursting with information on the whole region. It’s a good place to go to enrich your understanding of Singaporean culture, and Asian culture in general.

Above: Asian Civilizations Museum by night. Photo by: Keng Susumpow

*Eat at the Hawker Centers
This one’s obvious. How could you go to Singapore and not eat at the hawker centers? I say it’s a good idea to eat at least one meal a day (if not all three) at hawker centers to get a true flavor and understanding of the regional cuisines. Singapore’s food scene is influenced by all the countries in the area, so it will be a bit like you’re exploring all of Asia through your meals.

Above: Chicken rice from a Singapore hawker center. Photo by: Charles Haynes

*Look at the Signs
The street signs directly reflect the diversity of language in the country. Take a look at them and you’ll see that many are written in all four of the official languages. You’ll also notice that signs and warnings on the public transportation buses and MRT are written in four languages as well.

Above: A sign in Singapore written in English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay.

BLOG: Week 8 Updates

Whoa! I’ve already been here for 8 weeks? Time certainly does fly when you’re having fun.

Mostly good updates from my eighth week here in Nepal’s capital. I’ve been quite bogged down (in a good way) with work.  Kathmandu, and Nepal in general, is a writer’s paradise because there are SO many interesting things and SO many interesting people doing those interesting things.  So far I’ve written about/am writing about foreign diplomats, artists, wood-workers, writers, chefs, tea experts, yoga gurus, hotel managers, athletes and more.  My job as a magazine writer allows me the opportunity to meet, interview and write about all kinds of fascinating people, which is what I thrive off doing.

The monsoon is slowly abating here in Nepal, which is a blessing and a curse.  I’m not a huge fan of the rains (I know, I know, I am from Portland, Oregon… But still!) so it’s nice to have some moments of hot sun shining through the rain clouds.  The bad part about the slowing rains is that it means the power supply will also soon decrease.  The power in Nepal is directly correlated with the rains (as far as I know) because it is made through hydroelectric plants.  Without lots of water to power the hydro plants, there will be a decreased supply of electricity.  Last year the power was out a maximum of 16 hours per day in the dry season and I’ve heard rumors that this year will be worse, with up to 20 hours of power cuts per day.  So, there will be no rain but no power.  Luckily for people living in Kathmandu (and who can afford it), many of the restaurants and cafes have generators.  This means I’ll probably be living at the local coffee shop when the power is out for 20 hours per day, caffeinating and charging my electronics.

All was good on the running front until a few days ago when I started getting bad pains in what I think are the tendons on the top of my right foot.  I have a tendency to push myself too fast, too hard and too much.  I predict that my foot injury (please don’t be a stress fracture, please don’t be a stress fracture) is a result of too much running with not enough rest.  I’ve been hobbling about for the past three days, begrudging my swollen foot, hoping that the pain will magically disappear.  The timing not so great (is the timing ever great for an injury?) as the Kathmandu Marathon, of which I was planning to do the half, is coming up on October 2nd.  I’m hoping that with a little rest and rehabilitation, I’ll be ok for the race.  I attended this Saturday’s Hash run but, sadly, went with the walking group.  Walking the Hash was nice and relaxing, but I missed the heart-pounding intensity of the running group.

Tonight I went to a book reception at the home of Pulitzer Prize winner Kai Bird, who recently released his fifth book called Crossing Mandelbaum Gate (New York Times review here).  I accompanied my friend and writing mentor, Don Messerschmidt, to the event and had quite a good time meeting everyone in attendance.  There were teachers, diplomats, INGO workers, bookstore owners, photo-journalists, USAID workers and number of people who had spent a large portion of their lives traveling and living abroad.  Meeting everyone and listening to their stories was quite inspirational for me, as I am currently considering just what I want to do with my life (development work? journalism? living abroad? grad school?).  I left the event feeling motivated and excited for both the coming year in Nepal and whatever lays ahead after that.

Before the Kai Bird event, Don and I had lunch and an interview with a spectacular Swiss woman with a fierce independent spirit named Ann-Marie.  Ann-Marie came to Nepal in 1962 and stayed continuously until 1990 before returning to Switzerland.  She still returns to the country every year to visit.  This lady was a fountain of amazing stories.  My hand was aching to keep up with her as I jotted down everything in my notebook and I recorded our whole 3 hour conversation on my iPhone.  Ann-Marie came to Nepal after a stint in the Congo because she was craving more adventure before settling back down in Switzerland.  She’s worked with the Swiss government, managed hotels, trekked with Nepali princesses, met famous mountain climbers and diplomats and investigated the origins of Swiss cheese making in Nepal.  I left the meeting with Ann-Marie thoroughly inspired to have equally splendid adventures as she has had.  If I can be like Ann-Marie, who was probably around 90 years old, with that many stories and that much wisdom, then I’ll consider my life a success.

This and That from This Week:

Above: This week I revisited the Trungram Monastery located in Sankhu, Nepal, where I used to teach English to the monks three years ago. It was great to see how all the boys have grown up and improved their English skills.  The above photo is Nima, who was one of the youngest monks when I arrived in 2007.

Above: This week I stood in a cave that my monk friends tell me was hollowed out of a rock in the 12th century by the famous Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa.  Supposedly Milarepa sat mediating in this very cave for 6 months.

PHOTOS: Color and Texture at the Vietnamese Markets

It’s early morning at the market in Hoi An and women donning woven, conical hats bob up and down, organizing their baskets full of vegetables, herbs, and fruits. On the outskirts of the market are vegetable peddlers and inside, under the corrugated tin roof are noodle sellers, who are chopping cabbage and flouring rice noodles.

A walk through the markets of Vietnam reveals an astounding array of colors, textures and smells. Seeing the number of colorful vegetables and herbs at the market makes it easy to understand why Vietnamese food is so incredibly fresh and full of flavor. Pho vendors and banh mi stall owners are able to come to the markets every day and get the freshest ingredients, with dirt and roots still dripping off their ends. The variety of food, of all colors and textures, available at the Vietnamese markets seems to directly correlate to the diversity of Vietnamese cuisine.

Here are some photos that show the rich colors, textures and variety at the Vietnamese marketplaces.



















The Hypocritical Vegetarian on Butcher Shops in Kathmandu

In Kathmandu I have, sadly, become a semi-vegetarian and it’s because I’m a hypocrite. By “semi-vegetarian” I mean that when I’m out at a restaurant I’ll gladly order a meat dish, or when I’m at someone else’s home for dinner, I’ll happily rip through some juicy animal flesh. I really do love meat. But when I’m eating at home and cooking for myself, which is most of the time, meat is not on the menu.

The reason that I don’t cook meat at my own home is because the Kathmandu butcher shops are… intimidating. There are butcher shops everywhere. There is one down the street from my house and a few more within ten minutes walking. I literally pass dozens of butcher shops on my morning runs. But, no matter how many times I pass a Kathmandu butcher shop, I still cannot help but stare when I walk by.

The butcher shops are generally quite small, probably no more than 10 feet across, open air stalls. In front of the stall is a table that displays the shop’s product, which is most often chicken, pig, goat or buffalo (never cow, for cows are sacred animals here in Nepal). If the animal is large, like a pig or a goat, the sections are laid out in large chunks on the front table: the head on one side, the abdomen and front legs in the middle and the hind quarters on the other side. If it is a goat, the legs of the animal bend unnaturally, every which way. If it is a pig, the shop keepers often rub the whitish-pink skin with a spice that dyes the whole animal a shade of neon orange. Chickens are laid out in rows, sans head and feet, and are blow torched to singe off the tiny down feathers. The store proprietor often stands behind the meat-heavy table with a wand, made of a stick and a plastic bag, that he or she waves around the meat in a half-hearted effort to keep the flies at bay.

Whenever I walk by a butcher shop, I’m always struck by how, well, animal the meat is. The legs and hooves are still intact, the heads are sitting there, staring at me with open eyes, the hair and bristles are still visible on the skin. The “animalness” of the meat at the Kathmandu butcher shops puts me off because of how whole the meat pieces are. When I think about this, it is, of course, horribly hypocritical of me, because when I’m back in the supermarkets of the US, I make a beeline to the meat department and without any consideration pick out a plastic-wrapped package of chicken chunks or pork loins. In the US, the meat section of the store is so sanitized, so clean and sparkly, that it’s easy to forget that the little package of perfectly white, perfectly uniform, perfectly bone-free meat pieces actually came from an animal.

I think if most carnivorous people in the US saw the butcher shops in Kathmandu, they would likely feel the same way. There is blood, guts, hair and eyes. There are bones, tendons, organs and fat strips. Plastic wrapped, pre-sliced, pre-weighed meat packages do not exist here.

As a Westerner, it is easy to look upon the butcher shops here and think: “How dirty! What a bloody mess they are!” But, I think the fact that I am so put off by seeing large pieces of animal, with the heads intact, or that seeing a butcher slash away at a hanging goat carcass makes my stomach knot a bit is actually a reflection of the disconnect we Americans have with our meat. The distaste I feel at the open air butcher shops here is a negative reflection on my culture, not theirs.

Last summer I worked on two WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) farms in Thailand.  One farm in northern Thailand near Chiang Dao that I stayed at had a big business raising pigs. They had around 70 large pigs and would slaughter a few each week to sell at the market and eat themselves. I stood on, squeamishly, and watched the farmers slaughter a pig with a large, blunt machete. (Read the whole story here: “From Sty to Stew: Understanding Hyper-Local Food Systems”)

With gritted teeth, I observed as the farmers sliced open the pig’s belly, took out the organs and swiftly severed the head. I couldn’t help but think: “Gross!”

Shortly after the pig slaughter I was replaying the event in my head. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I’m an avid carnivore back at home. How can I think that an animal slaughter is ‘gross’?”

Seeing an animal slaughtered for food was completely new to me, but this made no sense because I’ve eaten animal meat my whole life. The farmers in Chiang Dao, Thailand, were actually shocked that I had never seen an animal killed before. For them, eating meat meant killing the animal themselves. For me, eating pig or goat or chicken in the US means going to the nice and neat meat aisle. I found that the farmers, who raise and slaughter, and then eat the pig themselves, had a much higher degree of respect for the animal and a much greater understanding of the food they ate. They ate almost every bit of the pig, including the blood and the organs: nothing went to waste. In the US, I’ve never seen an animal slaughter because this “dirty” work is done far, far away from my home, in a meat factory, probably in another state. I don’t know who kills the animals I eat, how the animals are killed or where my meat even came from in the first place. Is it imported from Mexico? Was it raised on a cow farm in Alabama? Was it raised on corn or grass? Was it injected with hormones and steroids? Who knows? This system makes no sense and when I consider it, is actually far more off-putting than seeing a locally grown, grass-fed animal slaughtered by the butcher, who also lives down the street from me.

So, as I walk by the butcher shops here in Kathmandu, and see the dead, glassy eyes of a recently slaughtered orange pig staring at me, I can’t help but stare back. The realness and the wholeness of the animals makes it difficult for me to order meat at the butcher shop to cook for myself, but I think this is not a negative reflection on Kathmandu butcher shops, it is a negative reflection on me and the food culture in my home country. It’s difficult for me to visit the butcher shops here because I am a product of a broken and disconnected food system in which people have no idea where their food comes from. As long as the food comes in a tidy little package, with no eyes, bones, tendons, or fat, I guess no one really cares.


Above: Recently slaughtered pigs in a row.
Above: The butcher slices and dices recently slaughtered pigs.  When I look at this my first instinct is to think: “Gross!” In fact, it’s not gross at all, I’m just used to a food system that raises, slaughters and packages animals behind closed doors.
Above: A recently slaughtered pig.  This pig was most likely raised locally, within the Kathmandu Valley.

Above: The butcher cuts up a pig into different pieces on one of the open air tables.

Above: An orange and bristly pig head at a butcher shop near Thamel, Kathmandu. Photo by: Rick McCharles

Above: Kathmandu residents line up to purchase meat at one of the local butcher shops. Photo by: John Pavelka

BLOG: A (Re)Visit to Trungram Monastery

Yesterday I made a trip outside of Kathmandu to visit the monks at Trungram Monastery, where I spent a good portion of my last Nepal trip living and teaching English. Trungram Monastery is located about 1.5 kilometers away from the small Newari village of Sankhu, which is about an hour by mini-bus from the Kathmandu city center.

I caught a bus from Chabahil area, which is near Boudhanath stupa, one of the biggest holy sites for Tibetans in Nepal. I arrived in Sankhu about an hour later and spent some time walking around the town taking photos of the Newari architecture and the small vegetable markets. Since three years ago, I noticed a marked increase in Sankhu’s size (the population of which is estimated at about 10,000). The town now includes quite a few more small shops and even became host to a Kathmandu Bank.

I hiked up to Trungram Monastery from the town, which takes about 30 minutes and winds up a hill, past rice fields and vegetable gardens. It was a walk I had taken many times before and it felt good to let my feet lead me through familiar territory. I recognized the same small houses, resting huts and water taps from three years ago.

Walking up to the monastery, it seemed to me that very little had changed. The grass was still green and velvety, the paint on the prayer room looked fresh and the big Tibetan Mastiff dog was still chained to the dining room door. I found my good friend Jangchup, a 23-year-old monk who I’ve stayed in contact with through Facebook, in his room. He proceeded to give me a “re-tour” of the grounds, pointing out things that had changed since I was living there. Mostly, the only things that had changed were that a few shrubs were now bigger. Also, the stoic guard who used to live there, a villager who spent most of his days flinging rocks at monkeys with his sling shot, had since retired.

I visited the classroom that I used to teach five classes per day. Class was in session and I said hello to all the boys who were my former students. The monastery currently has a new English teacher, a Dutch girl who stays in the village below. Jangchup showed me the library, which is full of Tibetan writings and philosophy books. Several years ago the monastery purchased three new computers, which are stationed in the library for the monks to use. The computers do not have internet connections, but I was nonetheless impressed at their investment and encouragement of technological proficiency. Jangchup spends some time each day teaching the young monks how to use the computers.

Jangchup and I spent the day walking around the monastery and the village, exploring the famous Vajrayogini temple, talking with the locals and checking out the small meditation caves in the area, where reportedly famous monks used to come to meditate for months at a time. After a few hours of exploration, we returned to the monastery for lunch.

The food, which is vegetarian, was simple yet delicious, just like I remembered. Red-robed little monk inhaled their rice and vegetables, excited to go run around outside after lunch. There were a number of new small monks at the monastery that I didn’t recognize, but most of them I remembered from 2007. Many of the boys looked exactly the same, but a few had grown up quite a bit. Some of the boys wanted to chat, but most are so shy, especially around females, that whenever I gave them a smile, they ran away in fits of embarrassment.

After lunch I went up to the small monks’ residence hall and hung out, chatting with those proficient in English and reminiscing with them about our times together three years ago. They all asked me who I remembered and who looked the same.

“He looks the same,” I said, pointing to Pasang. “He looks different. He’s grown two feet!” I said about Nima. They all burst into a fit of laughter at that remark.

Everyone wanted to know if they looked the same or different. I asked if I looked the same or different. They told me I looked the same, except “more white.”

The rambunctious nature of the small monks was surely the same as it was three years ago. During break time, just as I remembered, they spent their free hour karate chopping one another, running around on the roof of their residence hall, playing with a goat left by one of the villagers and break dancing.

I left in the late afternoon to catch a mini-bus back to Kathmandu and said goodbye to everyone. A few of the older boys who now have internet mobile phones said they had Facebook pages.

“Add me as a friend!” I said as I waved goodbye.


Above: Villagers climbing the steps up to the Vajrayogini temple complex. They were just returning home after transporting baskets full of vegetables to Sankhu to sell.

Above: Jangchup stands in front of one of the meditation caves we explored near Vajrayogini.

Above: Jangchup and I examined some of the fine metal work on the Vajrayogini temple complex. The temple had an interesting mix of Buddhist and Hindu deities.

Above: The puja (prayer) room at Trungram Monastery. This is the place that the monks gather in the morning and evening for two-hour prayer sessions. The prayer sessions are amazing to sit in on. They include lots of deep Tibetan chanting, gongs and horns.

Above: Me standing in one of the meditation caves. This is the oldest cave in the area and Jangchup told me that thousands of years ago, monks would come here to meditate for up to six months.

Above: The boys at the monastery. The majority of the monks pictured here are my former students. (So proud of them!) Anyone under four feet I most likely don’t know, as the smallest monks have only recently entered the monastery.

Above: The small monks sit on the lawn practicing their Tibetan after lunch.

Above: Two of the boys run up and down the hill adjacent to the monastery.

Above: On our way up to the Vajrayogini temple complex, Jangchup and I came across this Hindu shrine on the side of the path. The grounds surrounding it were still wet with fresh blood, as an animal (most likely a goat) had recently been sacrificed to the Gods.

Above: Me standing in front of the Buddha in the Trungram Monastery’s puja room.

PHOTOS: Himalayan Hash Run #2

This past Saturday was the women’s festival of Teej here in Nepal. On Teej women dress in red, head for the holy Hindu sites like Pashupatinath and dance the day away. Part of the Teej rituals (only for the women) include fasting all day. They must not eat any food for 24 hours and cannot even drink a sip of water. (I read a news article about hundreds of women at Pashuatinath who, while celebrating, fainted from lack of food and water this year.) During the 24 hour fast, women pray for a good husband. Instead of fasting and praying for a good man, I laced up my running shoes and headed for the hills with the Himalayan Hash House Harriers. To the chagrin of my neighbor, Gita, I left the house around 2 p.m. after eating a meal to fuel myself for the extravaganza. “Don’t you want to stay?” she asked, eyeing my dirty athletic shoes that were caked with mud from the last Hash run. “Don’t you wan’t to look like a bride?” she asked, pointing to her made-up face. I told her, sorry, but I had some running to do.

This week’s Hash was about an hour outside of central Kathmandu near the village of Sankhu, which is actually where I used to live three years ago when I was teaching English to monks as Trungram Monastery. It was great to be back running around my old stomping grounds. I recently purchased a small, waterproof waist belt that I can run with. My new gear allows me to take my point-and-shoot camera along with me on my Hash runs. Here are some photos from Himalayan Hash #1666.


Above: The Hashers circle up before the run begins.  The GM (Grand Master) in the middle debriefs us before we set out.  Saturday’s run was laid by “The Scholars,” the three young Nepali guys on the far right.

Above: The runners sprint along the river near Sankhu.

Above: A group of us take a breather, trying to find the confetti paper on the ground that will turn us in the right direction.

Above: Some of the Hashers run by a rice field. The women in the paddies are harvesting the rice.

Above: We had to make several river crossings on this Hash. I think I crossed rivers that were at least waist deep about four times.

Above: The Hashers try to figure out which way to go.

Above: The runners check out the awesome rice paddy views from a hill top.

Above: We wait at a “holding” spot for the rest of the runners to catch up.

Above: Me at the holding, sweating and smiling.

Above: After almost an hour-and-a-half of running, the runners came across a group of singing women dressed in red saris, celebrating the women’s festival of Teej.

Above: Paul made a rather impressive and graceful “Hash Crash” when we were crossing some dried up rice fields. The wounds were more spectacular in person.

Above: Somehow, when we were waiting for the rest of the runners to catch up, I got roped into dancing with the Nepali women in the Teej circle.

Above: The women in the Teej circle were singing and dancing when we ran by and continued to do so when we left.

Above: Dancing in the Teej circle in the countryside on the outskirts of Sankhu.

Above: After the run is finished, the virgins get initiated into the group with beer from metal goblets.

Snapshot Story: Breakfast on the Saigon Streets

The streets of Saigon have already come to life just after the sun makes its appearance over the ragged, urban cityscape. Motos zoom by with passengers on the back, cyclo drivers push and pull their bandy legs on their vehicle’s pedals and the coffee vendors expertly funnel the rich, black, liquid caffeine from a silver, dented pot to glass mugs with bottoms full of cloyingly sweet condensed milk.

From a corner adjacent to my hostel in Saigon’s backpacker district comes a mingling of smells that is impossible to resist. There is the salty smell of frying eggs, the juicy aroma of sizzling meats and an overpowering and romantic fragrance of just-baked, crunchy baguettes. The street stall is run by a sturdy Vietnamese woman who doesn’t smile, she just concentrates on cooking her eggs to perfection.

I order a bánh mì trung with the works for breakfast. The sandwich, which I think is one of the more perfect breakfast foods in Asia, is a version of the famous bánh mì made with an added omelette. The woman hands me a steaming mug of coffee that looks like tar and tastes like heaven before she sets about making my Saigon street breakfast. With two swift cracks she breaks the eggs into the pan, moving the skillet about with the hands of an expert. A serrated bread knife cuts through the crunchy outside of the baguette to reveal a soft and puffy inside: the perfect loaf of bread, a legacy left by the French. The surly woman slices off pieces of páte and stuffs them into the baguette’s fissure. With chopsticks, she adds fresh herbs and vegetables: green onions, a few sprigs of cilantro, cucumber and shredded carrot.

In just a few minutes the sandwich is finished. The woman, with the corners of her mouth turned down, wraps the stuffed baguette in a piece of yesterday’s newspaper and snaps it shut with a thin rubber band. She hands it over, I pay and then unwrap the sandwich, feeling like it’s Christmas on the hot and sticky morning streets of Saigon. At that moment, sitting on the street corner eating my bánh mì trung off an old piece of newspaper and already starting to sweat from the southern Vietnamese heat, I am absolutely certain that there is nowhere in the entire world I would rather be.

Snapshot Story: Female Construction Workers in Nepal

From my observations I can safely say that the construction industry in the United States is largely dominated by men. When passing by construction sites I rarely see a woman and if I do, she is usually holding a sign to direct traffic, not actually doing the manual work.

In Nepal, there exists a more equal balance between the male and female construction workers. Seeing a woman stacking and mortaring bricks at a building site is just as common as seeing a man doing the same job. Nepal lacks many of the big machines that we have in the US to assist with construction, for example, cement-mixing trucks. Everything is done by hand: laying bricks, mixing cement, digging earth, transporting rocks and putting up bamboo scaffolding. I have tremendous respect for anyone working in the Nepalese construction industry, for the intense manual labor that I see on the streets and at building sites looks to me to be literally backbreaking.

After growing accustomed to seeing women, both very young and very old, working construction jobs, I began to notice their clothing. Despite the messy, dirty chaos of their work sites, the women construction workers manage to keep their clothing incredibly clean and bright. There’s no coveralls for them, for they don their delicate and vibrantly colored saris and kurtas to work. There exists a contrast between the femininity of the women and the harsh nature of their manual labor. To watch women workers with their perfectly clean saris and kurtas transport bricks on their heads, smiling and laughing all the while, almost seems unreal.