Monthly Archives: October 2010

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.

PHOTOS: Dasain Happenings in Kathmandu

This week rang in Dasain, the biggest and most widely celebrated festival in Nepal.  When I was living here three years ago I left right before Dasain started, so I am now seeing things with completely new eyes.  Most Nepalis have an extended holiday from school and work for Dasain.  For example, I have a ten day holiday from work and my neighbor’s children have a two week holiday from school (which has resulted in a constant stream of banter and fighting between the two kids next door).  My Nepali friends had told me that everything shuts down for Dasain and that Kathmandu completely clears out because a large percentage of the people who live in Kathmandu are not actually from here, but are from villages outside the Valley.  Dasain, like American Christmas and Thanksgiving, is a time to get together with family, feast, pray and give offerings to a huge number of gods who I cannot keep straight.  Because Dasain is a time for everyone to be with family, many people leave Kathmandu to return to their home villages.  This has resulted in a startlingly quiet Kathmandu which I am enjoying immensely.  For example, I went for a long walk around the city yesterday and could actually walk straight the entire time without having to dodge anyone or anything.  It was glorious.

Kathmandu is not quite a “ghost town” right now, but compared to its normal, bustling self, the city is totally different.  As I mentioned, sidewalks are clear, streets are clear and stores are closed.  The shops that remain open are mostly run by Indians or are butcher shops.  The butcher shops are busier than normal because Dasain is a time for feasting on meat, lots and lots of meat.  When I do see people walking on the streets, they are often leading goats around on string or ropes, as we in the U.S. might lead our dogs around by a leash.  The only difference is these goats are doomed for slaughter and will likely be transformed into a delicious, spiced dish later in the day.

Butcher shops are open and brimming with meat, often with ten live goats tied out front for later slaughter.  Besides a time for feasting on meat, Dasain is also the main time in Nepal for animal sacrifice.  There are literally tens of thousands of animals sacrificed on any given day of Dasain.  I was hoping to infiltrate a buffalo sacrifice yesterday, but it is difficult for foreigners to get into these sacred rituals.  I did manage to see a duck sacrifice at one temple, though.  At the Hindu temples there are goat, buffalo, chicken and goat sacrifies to the gods.  There is even one temple in the Terai region in the southern town of Janakpur that completes 20,000 buffalo sacrifices throughout the festival.  The grounds of Janakpur are reportedly sticky with blood after Dasain is finished.  After the animal is sacrificed (this is done by slitting the throat) the family that bought the animal cleans it, butchers it and then feasts on it, leaving very little of the animal to waste. Although many Nepalese families continue to do animal sacrifices every year during Dasain, there are a number that prefer to “sacrifice” pumpkins or coconuts to the gods, instead of slitting the throat of a goat or buffalo.

Yesterday I celebrated Dasain with the family of a friend and got a great taste of what the celebration is really about.  Before I met up with Ravi and Ratika (my hosts for the day) I went on a photography mission around Kathmandu to try to capture the happenings and differences that Dasain has brought to the city. Here’s what I got:

Above: As I mentioned in a previous post, Kathmandu has become speckled with these stages featuring slightly scary statues of the multi-handed goddess Durga, a demon and a lion. Here is one particularly large stage and scene close to my house. The women are giving offerings and money to the gods.

Above: A man tends to another one of the Durga statue scenes near the bridge that connects Kathmandu and Lalitpur.

Above: A close-up of the demon who is trying to slay goddess Durga. Take note of the realistic nipple and armpit hair. Frightening.

Above: This picture is unremarkable except for one thing: there are almost NO cars of motorbikes on it. I have been completely in awe at how quickly Kathmandu cleared out for Dasain. Compared to its normal self, it almost feels like a ghost town. This particular road is usually clogged with all sorts of vehicles.


Above: Sundhara, which is normally one of the busiest bus parks in the city, has transformed into a fowl purchase and slaughter center. Here, a couple on a motorbike picks out a few live ducks to take home.

Above: A man walks around Sundhara trying to sell ducks to customers on motorbikes during Dasain.

Above: Where tuk-tuks usually line the streets, there are now metal and wicker baskets stuffed with chickens for the taking.

Above: A few Dasain customers inspect a live duck at Sundhara bus park on Saturday.

Above: Normally where there are hordes of tuk-tuks and mini-buses, there are now lines of chicken cages. The handy location makes it easy for motorbikers to stop quickly to pick up their fowl.

Above: A cage of doomed chickens. But, they will surely makes some tasty Dasain morsels soon enough.

Above: The Sundhara bus park has turned into a makeshift slaughter house for Dasain. You can stop here, pick out your chicken or duck and also have it slaughtered on location (on the side of the road).

Above: At one of the makeshift slaughter houses on the side of the road, a woman dips a recently killed chicken into a tin of boiling water.

Above: A man then dips the dead, boiled and plucked bird into another vat of hot water.

Above: Where once tuk-tuks packed Sundhara to the gills, there are now tiny makeshift slaughter stations where Dasain customers can have their chickens and geese killed.

Above: Hindu devotees wait in line to enter one of the many Kathmandu temples on the first Saturday of Dasain.

Above: For Dasain people leave offerings of food, rice grains and tikka powder outside their front doors.

Above: Another offering outside someone’s front doorstep for Dasain.

Above: Saturday was the day of Dasain that Nepalis did pujas and gave offerings to their machinery, including their cars and motorbikes. The private cars, taxis, motorcycles, bicycles and rickshaws around town were laden with garlands of marigolds, auspicious scraps of cloth and sprinkled with tikka powder. Here, a woman and her husband give offerings to their motorbike. (Notice the marigold garlands around the handlebars).

Above: A taxi with a garland of marigolds around its license plate. If pujas are done to the vehicles on this particular day, it is said that the vehicle will serve the owner well for another year (and no accidents to boot).

Above: An offering plate that will be given to a vehicle.

Story Behind the Story: Ethos Magazine Guest Post

Ethos Magazine recently published my second guest blog for them since I graduated from the University of Oregon. The article titled “The Responsible Traveler: Understanding Beauty and Ugliness” explores what it means to understand the good, the bad and the ugly while touring a foreign country. I wrote about how before I came to Nepal I pored over magazine articles and the Lonely Planet guidebook pictures and formulated a kind of image of Nepal that was completely idealistic and overly majestic. How could I not? The Lonely Planet showed pictures of the Himalayas and small rural villages, Buddhist monks and Hindu city shrines. I came to Kathmandu expecting all these things. I found them, but I also found another side of the picture: glue-huffing children, trash everywhere and extreme poverty.  (Please read the full story to find out more.)

For my Ethos, I also must provide pictures to accompany my articles. I wanted to provide a picture of the “ugliness” that I am taking about in my article, i.e., extreme poverty or the glue-addicted children. As I wrote about on a recent blog, I am opposed to taking pictures of people living in extremely poor conditions or in fragile situations, like beggars, because usually I find that sort of thing to be patronizing and inappropriate. So, I suggested to my Ethos editors that we use a Creative Commons picture of a beggar on the streets of Kathmandu instead. They replied that it would be better if I took my own pictures. I rationalized that taking photos of the homeless children would be okay for journalistic purposes because I was trying to bring awareness to the problem, so I equipped myself with my Canon and hit the streets. I think I was originally resisting taking my own photos of the homeless kids because I was intimidated. As I walked from my home in Sanepa to Thamel, where most of the homeless kids congregate, I tossed around the idea in my head. I wondered why I was intimidated by these kids, because after all, they were just that: kids. But the homeless, glue-huffing boys always exude a sort of hard outer shell, that is often aggressive. Their sickly condition is also so startling to me that I shy away, avoiding their eyes and their pleas for money or food.

I arrived in Thamel, took a deep breath and surveyed the scene. I quickly approached a homeless 11-year-old named Suraj who was stumbling around high on fumes. Although he was one of the homeless gang, he was perhaps the least sickly looking one of the bunch, therefore, the most approachable. He still looked like an innocent kid, while many of the others who are slightly older have a disturbingly hard look in their face and in their eyes. I struck up a conversation with Suraj and asked if I could hang out with him for a while and snap some photos. I told him that in return, I would buy him a meal. Suraj and I roamed around together for a while and he introduced me to a few of his friends, also homeless boys who were permanently attached to their glue bags. I didn’t want to prolong the whole event, so I took some photos of them and did a few short interviews. After I decided I had sufficient material to accompany my article, Suraj led me to a local supermarket so I could buy him some biscuits, as he requested. His friend came along too, a 13-year-old who looked especially gaunt and unhealthy, and I told him I’d treat him to some food also. At first the boys asked for biscuits and I told them to pick out which ones they’d like from the supermarket. I was surprised that when I allowed them to pick out what they wanted for themselves, instead of picking out biscuits, they headed straight for the bags of milk powder. The only thing they asked for were large tins of powdered milk, which I purchased for them. I’m not sure if they knew that powdered milk has at least some nutrients, or if it makes them more full for longer than biscuits, but they obviously had some reason for picking out the stuff.

I waved goodbye to them and they very politely said thank you and requested that I come again whenever I wanted to. The two sauntered off down the street, cradling their powdered milk in one hand, huffing glue from bags in the other hand. I watched them go and felt a heaviness in the pit of my stomach. After three years of traveling and living in Asia, I feel that I’ve gained a certain hardness or immunity to things I see, but no matter how many times I see these sickly, young homeless boys, I feel an indelible wave of sadness.

Although I was dreading this assignment when Ethos asked me to take my own photos, it ended up being just what I needed to prompt me out of my comfort zone. Photography is still an art that I’m learning, but I think good photographers are adept at being out of their comfort zone all the time. With a camera, you are inherently crossing a personal line and stepping into someone’s life and often into someone’s problems.
Above: Suraj, the 11-year-old boy I followed for the afternoon, huffing on the streets.

Above: Suraj and his 13-year-old friend beg outside a supermarket in Thamel. They say their main complain is hunger and safety concerns when sleeping on the street at night. Because of their young age, they are often targets for robbery or violence by the older, stronger homeless people or gang members on the Kathmandu streets.

BLOG: Week 11 Updates

The monsoon rains stopped just as abruptly as they would begin several weeks ago and since then, the weather has become rather agreeable and pleasant. It seemed as though Kathmandu was in a perpetual state of sog and then all of the sudden, it was over.

Doomed for Dasain.

At the moment there is much excitement in the air as Dasain, one of the largest festivals in Nepal, is right around the corner. Dasain is like an extended, two week Christmas for Nepalis. It is a time for getting together with family, praying, giving offerings and gifts to the gods and to relatives. It also, of course, means two weeks of intense feasting. (There has been much news reportage lately about the exponential increase in meat demand. Nepali people drastically increase their meat intake during Dasain, so the butcher shops have been especially inundated lately with extra goats.) Dasain, like Christmas, is a holiday that the locals look forward to all year and meticulously prepare for with the same type of fervor that would inspire us in the U.S. to start buying Christmas presents in July. Over the past few weeks, the market centers, like Asan Bazaar, have become increasingly packed with people buying new clothes, shoes, house decorations and everything in between. Walking through the bazaars during this Dasain madness is quite a task. I feel like I’ve become stuck inside some surreal, writhing mass of humanity who are quickly snapping up gawdy Chinese stilettos crusted with plastic rhinestones and t-shirts covered with non-sensical English phrases (“Adults only party!”).

When I was in Nepal three years ago I left right before Dasain, which falls in mid-October, so I am now seeing festivals and bits of the culture that are totally new to me. During my walks in Kathmandu lately, I’ve noticed a plethora of these massive stages, dripping with colored lights and velvet drapes, on top of which are installed statues and figurines of Hindu gods acting out certain scenes, which are often quite frightening. For example, across from my favorite vegetable vendor is a stage featuring a scene which looks as though a man is about to capture and murder some multi-handed goddess. They are perpetually stuck there, in all their tacky splendor. From behind the stages blasts stereotypical, twangy Hindi music and placed prominently in the center of the stage, in front of the statues are cash collection boxes. I asked my Nepali friends about these stages and they told me the sole point is “to make money.” I often stop and admire the frighteningly statues of gods leaping with spears and tigers stuck in mid-roar. Many of the statues of human figures even come equipped with life-like arm pit and nipple hair attached.

Looking forward to lots of these kinds of meals on Dasain. Photo by: .:RMT:.

Dasain officially starts in three days and I’m looking forward to seeing the city during the festival. Since Dasain is a time to be with family and a good portion of Kathmandu residents are actually not from Kathmandu, but from villages outside the Valley, many people leave the city for their home villages. I’ve been told that this results in a very quiet and peaceful Kathmandu for two weeks. A bit of quiet during my Dasain vacation from work will be a nice respite from the city’s normal chaos. Many of the shops and restaurants will also be closed and one friend even described Kathmandu during Dasain as “a ghost town.” I’m under the impression that to really understand the festivities of Dasain, one must attach oneself to a family because that’s where all the action happens during the festival: in the home. I’ve been invited by three families to celebrate Dasain on separate days, so I look forward to the feasts, the family and the fun. I’ll spend a few of the holidays with my neighbor, Gita, and her relatives. When I mentioned that I might leave Kathmandu for Dasain break to see the tea plantations of Ilam in the east, she said I absolutely could not because then I wouldn’t get to spend time with her family, several of whom are flying in from the U.K. and Australia for the occasion. She jokingly (I think) said that if I dared leave and not celebrate with her family she would punish me with a beating. I laughed but did a double-take at her to make sure it was in jest. I will also be spending one day with my colleague Sachin and his family, and then another day with a Nepali freelance writer friend, Ravi, whom I often edit stories for.

Besides the general Dasain madness that has taken over Kathmandu, the third floor of my apartment building (the floor on which I live) has lately been taken over by sickness and other afflictions. I began the whole hospital madness a few weeks ago when I came down with a horrible case of food poisoning. The incident came exactly two days after I was bragging to a friend that I’ve never had food poisoning while abroad. I lethargically laid in my room, as close as possible to the bathroom, for two days, not eating or drinking anything. Finally, I told my neighbor Gita that I had to go to the hospital for treatment. She insisted that she come too and after many attempts at convincing her I would be fine alone, I finally relented and she came along with me. I think my trip to the hospital was more of a fun social outing for her than it was for me. After waiting an hour for her, she emerged from her side of the hall wearing her one Western-ish outfit: a cotton kurta shirt and jeans, an outfit that I had only seen her wear once before, as she normally wears traditional saris. She also had done herself up in full makeup and I smelled the strong odor of perfume, which had the tendency to make my stomach knot up even more when I caught a whiff. We were quite the sight, I think: me, looking pale and sickly, and her, exuberant about the opportunity to leave the house and take me somewhere, no matter what the circumstances. She was practically prancing down the street to the tuk-tuk stop as I sluggishly dragged myself behind her. Gita smiled and laughed the whole excruciating tuk-tuk ride to the hospital, joking with me while I made pitiful attempts to smile as I held my stomach.

“To the hospital!” she said with a laugh as she hung out the back of the tuk-tuk, while I huddled in between two old men wearing topis. She was excited as I might be to see a play or go out to a fancy dinner.

At the hospital, I think she was rather disappointed at my lack of serious treatment. After we left she linked her arms with mine and we walked (well, she pranced, I dragged) home in the warm Kathmandu evening. Although her presence was not needed and was a bit bubbly, I was happy to have her accompany me. I got a different glimpse of her on this hospital trip, one where she was completely untethered from her domestic duties to her children and husband. Her role as a wife and mother is one that she fills almost 24/7, so although a hospital trip was no fun for me, I can see why she enjoyed it: it was a chance for her to fill another role. For an evening, she was a woman out on the town with a friend, laughing, joking and chatting (and getting prescriptions for Ciprofloaxin antibiotics and rehydration salts). We chatted as we walked home, arm in arm, and I thanked her for all her help.

“I your guardian,” she said with a laugh. I also saw that she relished the chance at channeling her motherly instincts beyond her two children, to me as well.

After I fell ill, both Gita’s children also became sick with some kind of fever. Both are better now, but Gita’s husband had to carry their son, who they never call by name, only “Babu” (little boy), to the hospital. Then Gita fell ill for several days, stuck inside her house with the fever. I took over some of her cleaning duties in the mean time, spending a good portion of last Saturday morning cleaning our shared bathroom. By the end of the several hour cleaning spree, I began to resent how many tiles we have in our bathroom, but also began to appreciate Gita more for how much she actually cleans.

The next to be afflicted with a hospital visit was Gita’s husband. I came home last night to find that he had fallen from a ladder while trying to fix something (she said “electrical wires”…?) and had broken his left hand and received 8 stitches on his face.  Now that we’ve all fallen sick, I can only hope that this spell will soon be over for good.

In other news, I’ve developed tendonitis in my foot and have been ordered to stop running for 6 weeks. This news has motivated me to buy a bicycle, which could be the best or worst idea I’ve yet had in Kathmandu. I bought my new bicycle this afternoon for less than $100 and have relished the new freedoms I’ve found through my wheels. My next investment will surely be a face mask and a helmet.