Category Archives: Blog

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.

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.

BLOG: Things I Miss About Home

I find living abroad to be immensely pleasurable. I love being an outsider in a culture that is very foreign to me, as being in this position gives me innumerable opportunities to discover and see new things. Living in a foreign place also allows me endless material for observing and writing. There are, of course, some things I miss about home, which is Portland, Oregon, but could more generally just be the United States. There are the obvious things, like friends, family and home cooked meals, but there are also some other things I’ve been thinking about lately that I do not get in Kathmandu.

Here are a list of things I miss about home:

1) Being able to walk in a straight line

Must dodge sacred cows.

I miss being able to walk in a straight line, on a straight path, without having to constantly be on the lookout for obstacles to dodge. Whenever I walk in Kathmandu, I feel like I am in some sort of bizarre, real-life video game where I must dodge things ever 10 seconds including dogs, people, food carts, motorcycles, taxis, rickshaws, feces and 6-foot deep sewer holes in the sidewalk. While it can be entertaining and stimulating sometimes, I often long for the peaceful, straight and uninterrupted paths and walkways of home.

2) Walking on a flat surface
This one is sort of an extension of number one. I miss walking on flat surfaces, like flat sidewalks and roads. In Kathmandu, the sidewalks are in such poor conditions that I often feel that I am “urban trekking,” constantly going up and down uneven pieces of sidewalk, hopping over piles of bricks, spanning lakes of stagnant water and traversing heaps of sand. I miss the flat, wide sidewalks of Portland where there is more than enough room for people to walk.

3) Being anonymous
I know I said in the beginning that I like being an outsider and that’s true. But, there is something to be said for being anonymous in a crowd. In Portland, or most places in the U.S., I can just disappear in the crowd. If I’m walking in Portland’s busy Saturday Market or through a street fair, no one gives me a second look. I’m just another person. Here in Kathmandu, people stare at me EVERYWHERE I go. I often travel unaccompanied and I know many Nepalis may think this is strange, especially in the countryside, but I get stared at intensely even in the city. I miss the ability to be anonymous and disappear into a crowd.

4) Not being stared at
This is an extension of number three. Never being anonymous means always standing out in the crowd. It may be because I have light hair and it may be because I am young-looking and travel alone most of the time. Whatever it is, people, especially men, stare at me all the time. It is a rather disconcerting and uncomfortable sort of stare, a kind of stare that feels like it pierces your skin. The staring by men is a part of this culture that makes me feel extremely uncomfortable and annoyed sometimes. When I am walking, I often try not to notice it, but other times it is simply impossible to ignore. I’ve developed a rather bad habit of very conspicuously staring back at people whose eyes are fixed on me, even to the point where I turn my head so as not to break eye contact as I walk by. I sometimes wonder if this habit will someday have reprecussions, but I sort of want to make intense starers feel the same way they are making me feel. I know I may be an oddity here, but I miss never being stared at in Portland.

5) Being safe alone at night

I know I am not safe everywhere in Portland alone at night, but in most places I feel fine walking by myself. In Kathmandu, I absolutely do not feel comfortable EVER when alone at night. My level of discomfort at night has increased since three years ago. I don’t know if this stems from what is probably my increased level of rationality from when I was 20 years old, or if it is from the constant warnings I get from locals. Everyone says: “No matter what you do, do NOT walk alone at night in Kathmandu.” I’m not the type of person who gets easily scared about travel warnings, but this is one that I will follow. Kathmandu has received a deluge of people migrating from rural parts of the country and perhaps because of this, now has had increased crime rates and problems with drug addicts. Rather than take my chances, I prefer to be home when the sun goes down. So, I miss being able to walk around at night with no problems or fears like I can in Portland.

6) Clean air

Clean Air... Yum


Portland has crisp, fresh and clean air. Kathmandu does not. I miss the clean air of Portland and not blowing my nose to find it black from pollution, dust and smog.

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.

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.

BLOG: Week 4 Updates

This woman probably sells the same thing on the same corner day after day. I wonder if she ever gets bored?

Somehow, I’ve already been in Kathmandu for four weeks.  My days here are packed and that’s just the way I like it.  I’m settling into the fast-paced life of a magazine editor and have even become accustomed to six-day work weeks, which I was bemoaning just two weeks ago.  Six-day work weeks make my one day off, Saturday, so much sweeter.  I’ve been thinking about what it will be like when I return to the US next year and start working five-day work weeks (here’s for hoping, anyway).  It will be luxury! Pure luxury!

My apartment is shaping up quite nicely.  I live in an area called “Sanepa” which is on the opposite side of the Bagmati River as Kathmandu.  Technically, I do not live in Kathmandu, but I live in Patan.  The Bagmati River is the divider between the two cities, but the urban creep quickly blurred the lines between Kathmandu and Patan a long time ago.  In my neighborhood there is a large concentration of foreigners living and working.  This area is also a central to a number of NGOs and foreign schools, so there are many fellow expatriates living around here on long-term assignments.  Kathmandu’s British School is right down the street from my flat, so there are usually school-aged children walking around during the afternoon after gets out.  If I’m home in the evening, I usually stand on the rooftop of my building with my land lady and neighbor, Gita.  Whenever she sees a foreign woman with a baby walk by, she tells me that she can’t wait for me, too, to “have birth.”  “Baby cute!” she says.  I quickly change the subject after telling her that, with hope, I won’t be “having birth” for some time.  After I change the subject she bemoans her dark skin and I fruitlessly try to explain the concept of tanning beds and tanning lotions.  Thus far, I’ve made no headway on the subject.

The other news in regards to my apartment is that I finally got four items of furniture: two comfy chairs and two tables (one for a desk and one for the kitchen).  This was a major breakthrough thanks to the local tea shop owner, Basanta.  Basanta’s place is the hang-out spot for all my Nepali friends.  His shop is a musty, dark place that has the best tea around.  We sit there for hours and drink endless cups of Nepali tea and sometimes coffee.  Although Basanta doesn’t speak English, he knew through my Nepali friends that I was in need of furniture.  Last week I showed up after work at Basanta’s and, lo-and-behold, there was a stack of used furniture for me! It was a miracle (a very reasonably priced miracle). I was so excited for my new furniture that I told him I would immediately hire a taxi to transport the items to my flat.  Basanta brushed off that suggestion as nonsense and pointed to a medieval horse cart that he had in his shop.  “What?” I thought.  “He can’t be serious.”  But, he was.  Basanta quickly piled all the furniture on the horse cart, lashed it on with frayed rope, and off we went to my place.  It took us about 45 minutes to push the furniture-heavy cart through the streets. We were winding through main streets, highways, alleys and everything in between.  We caused quite a major traffic jam when trying to cross the main chowk (street).  To top off the adventure, it was monsooning out and a complete mud bath in the street.  We arrived at my house soaking wet and caked with mud.  But, furniture!  Glorious furniture!  I don’t think I’ve ever been so appreciative of anything.

Work is going quite well.  We’re doing some fun work with web development and I’ve been doing some great stories.  (I’ll post links to my stories once they are published).  A huge part of my job is reading. I read ALL day.  I read stories submitted by freelancers, stories already published, stories from other news sources and stories from anywhere else I can find.  I feel that I’m learning an incredible amount about Nepal from all these stories.  It’s fun to go out exploring and then be able to apply the bits I’ve learned from all the reading.

My running regime is also going well.  I’ve perfected the morning run route.  Yesterday was a holiday from work, so I had the day to myself to relax.  I was excited for my day off, but the constant monsoon rain quickly squelched my excitement.  I was stranded in my house, about to go crazy from my forced hermitage.  Finally, around 3:30 p.m. there was a break in the rains.  I immediately slipped on my running shoes, which were still soggy from the day before, and hit the road.  This was my first attempt at afternoon running, and I was actually pleasantly surprised.  Afternoon running is quite different than early-morning running just because there are exponentially more people out and about.  But, from my morning runs I’ve learned the art of blocking out things going on around me.  I don’t block out everything of course, mostly just the awkward stares that I get from people.  Not many people run here, and if they do, it’s usually early.  Afternoon runners are almost non-existant.  So, I got a LOT more stares on my afternoon run and a number of annoying “comments” from men standing around or motorcycling by.  Luckily, I couldn’t understand the comments and I’m sure if I could they would either be a) annoying or b) offensive.  Well, I guess the language barrier is good for something.

In general, I’m falling into my Kathmandu routine, which is quite fun.  Being an expatriate here is never boring, I can say that much.

BLOG: Running in Kathmandu

Running Shoes (Photo by ernomijland-flickr)

After being in Kathmandu for two weeks (and half-a-year in 2007) I had come to the following conclusion: walking straight in Nepal’s capital city is an impossibility.  I have tried to prove myself wrong on numerous occasions (maybe this street? No. Maybe that alley? No.), but failed miserably every time.  Walking in a straight line, uninterrupted just would not work.  There are pot holes, open sewers, dead and alive dogs in the street, piles of garbage, maniacal taxis and rickshaws, children, adults, food carts, and piles of poop, all of which prove to be obstacles to dodge while walking.   I found this rather unfortunate because if I am to live here for any extended period of time I need to run.

Exercise, running specifically, is very important to me.  Some people meditate or do yoga to clear their mind.  I run.  Running keeps me feeling good and energetic, but most importantly, it keeps me sane.  I never ever run while listening to music because that hour while I am pounding the pavement is my personal time to sift through my thoughts.  I usually finish a run feeling sweaty and inspired.  Besides using running to maintain my sanity, the Kathmandu Marathon is looming on October 2nd (I’ll probably do the half marathon).  I have yet to finish a half-marathon and I figured I might as well start with a bang and do the Kathmandu race.

While I was wallowing in my sorrows about the impossibility of running outside I woefully investigated gyms.  This would be an absolute last resort, I told myself.  Although I adore outside running, hiking and walking, I Hate (with a capital H) gyms.  Running on treadmills is especially dreadful.  I was at work, complaining about not being able to run, when one of my co-workers suggested that, in fact, it is possible!  The catch: waking up at 5:30 in the morning.

An early morning wake-up didn’t seem too bad, so I decided to give it a try.  My efforts were rewarded.  I have now successfully run outside in Kathmandu for four days and will continue to do so almost every day that I can.  I’m actually incredibly pleased with my morning runs.  At 5:30 a.m. about 80% of the aforementioned obstacles are not yet on the road.  I even pass by some fellow runners every now and then.  I’ve quickly learned to ignore prying eyes (hard to escape in this city) and have charted about three routes that I quite enjoy.  The first day I ran from my apartment to Ring Road, and followed Ring Road for about a mile.  This was okay, but Ring Road is a very busy street (even at 5:30 in the morning) so it was difficult to escape exhaust fumes and gritty eyes.

The second day I found a much more pleasant route that actually goes into the semi-country outside of Ring Road.  I can run up and down hills and through some rice paddy areas where there is exponentially less traffic and rabid-looking dogs.

Being up early gives me a nice window into the morning activities in the area.  Here are a few of the sights I’ve seen while on my morning runs:

*One of my routes leads me to a bridge over a river (Bagmati? I’m not sure, maybe too small for the Bagmati).  Now, forget Caddy Car Wash!  Instead of a hose down of a mechanical car-wash, taxi drivers simply drive their vehicles right into the river, whip out plastic buckets and clean their cars with river water! I was so surprised when I first saw the gathering of taxis in the river that I stopped my run to watch.

*As I gazed at the goings on of the taxi washing, I noticed a gaggle of crows and vultures snacking on a gray, decomposing, headless pig, which was sitting right in the middle of a shallow portion of the river (about 10 feet downstream from the taxi wash area).

*First, I heard a thunderous cracking of glass, metal and plastic.  I turned around just in time to see a pretty horrible motorbike crash.  The two drivers quickly stood up and yelled at each other.  Witnessing the early-morning accident confirmed that I will never ride a motorbike in Kathmandu (unless I am sitting on the back).

*Early mornings are the best times to witness the butchers at work.  Butcher shops in Kathmandu are like nowhere I’ve ever seen: the chopped up pieces of

A butcher's table in Nepal (goat no more).

meat sit out in the open on a table.  Usually the butcher shop owner hoovers over the meat chunks with a wand to dispel the flies.  But, mornings are when the butchers actually slaughter the said animal (usually goat).  My running routes take me by a number of butcher shops.  On Friday I saw a spotted brown goat munching on a blade of grass, looking forlorn, and tied to a stake.  His former compatriot was sitting in three pieces, completely shaved, on the butcher’s table: head on the far left, abdomen and front legs in the middle, and hind quarters sitting askew on the far left.  I felt that the alive goat was not feeling so lucky and could most likely sense his impending doom.

BLOG: So… Just What Am I Doing?

The life of an editor. (Photo by Nic McPhee-flickr)

When I bought my ticket to Kathmandu several months ago, I knew I would be coming to Nepal for a job.  Through some connections, I found a job working at an English-language monthly magazine based in Kathmandu.  Despite the fact that I had secured my job long before I stepped on the plane to Asia, I still was not sure exactly what I would be doing.  I vaguely had the idea that I would be “writing” and “editing.”

Even on the first day of my job as “Assistant Editor” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Four solid nine to five days into working and now I’m slowly starting to understand what my job entails.  I shall now explain exactly what I have been doing, am expected to do and presume I will do for this period of employment.

As I mentioned, I am working at a Nepali-owned magazine that focuses on culture, people, customs, rituals, travels, religions, foods, etc… of Nepal.  The magazine was originally aimed at expatriates living in Nepal, but the target audience has since shifted to the elite, urbanites of Nepal.  “Urbanites of Kathmandu?” you may ask.  Yes… Urbanites.  They do exist in large numbers.  The ads especially are aimed at a reader who is educated and has disposable income to spend on cigarettes, gyms, alcohol, clothes, etc…  If I could compare it to another magazine at home, I would say it is like Portland Monthly.

As I also mentioned, I am the Assistant Editor.  So far, my job entails a number of things and I have also been taking on extra duties in terms of their web presence.  I edit and copy edit the articles that go in the magazine (along with one other person), I keep in contact with all the freelance writers (for example, I need to keep track of and keep organized what they are writing, which issue the story would fit in, what sort of subject matter they are best at covering, etc…), I (with the help of some others) make story plans for the magazine up to six months in advance, I keep in contact with the layout department, I write captions and pick pull quotes, I write anything that needs to be written (I went to an art gallery opening yesterday afternoon with one of the magazine’s photographers), I assign stories to in-house and freelance writers, and I am expected to contribute 5,000-6,000 words per month to the magazine.  Phew.  In addition to my editorial duties I am making a long plan on how to increase the magazine’s web presence and social media presence and I’m trying to figure out how the web site can become successful internationally.  Phew again.  These duties are not all 100% on my shoulders and I have other people on the team who I consult with about all of the above.

I am slowly learning everyone’s names and personalities at the office, which I am at from nine to five, six days per week (except when I go out on a writing assignment).  I still don’t fully know what to expect out of this job, but I know I am in for quite a stint here in Kathmandu.

Book Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo: I give it a B-.

Although all the books I read are not Asia-related, I’ve decided to write book reviews for them anyway.  I enjoy reading and I enjoy writing, so why not put both together and make my blog space also somewhere for reviewing what I read: the good, the bad and the ugly.

When I hopped on the plane to Seoul, I brought with me ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ by Stieg Larsson.  I didn’t know anything about this book except that it had been made into a movie recently, which was showing at the Bijou Arts Cinemas in Eugene (where I was previously living).  Although this is not always true, I have this idea in my mind about what sorts of books are made into movies: first, they must be appreciated by the masses (think ‘The Beach‘ by Alex Garland, ‘Eat, Pray, Love‘ by Elizabeth Gilbert, etc..), second, they often have a somewhat formulaic plot (think, ‘Eat, Pray, Love,’ etc…).  But, presumptions aside, I had seen the brightly colored yellow and green book on many bookstore shelves and front windows.  ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ is, after all, an international bestseller.

So, I inherited the book from my mother who didn’t have much to say about it.  I think her exact quote was: “It’s ok.”

I would give this book a B-.  It was entertaining and definitely a good plane read, but besides that, it surely doesn’t go in my favorites list.

I felt that Larsson was trying his hardest, actually too hard, to create characters with a depth of personality and charisma.  Despite his efforts, I found them all rather flat and unbelievable.  Lisbeth is this mysterious character, but at the end we never find out why she is so “different.”  The connection between the characters seems disjointed and false.

The main character, Mikael Blomkvist, is a hero if I’ve ever seen one.  He might even be hero enough to rival Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon in ‘The Davinci Code.’  Speaking of ‘The Davinci Code,’ the entire times I was reading ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,’ I felt that the book was incredibly similar to Brown’s novel.  Both follow an overly heroic, macho man as he bravely solves a very intricate and mixed up crime: women love them even though they seem oblivious to the way they make females fall head-over-heals.

I wasn’t overcome by any sort of emotion at the end of ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.’  I simply closed the cover and began thinking about the next book I was going to read.

In regards to Larsson’s book I’ll have to agree with my mother: “It’s ok.”