Category Archives: Nepal

Animating Nepal – A Look Into a Burgeoning Outsource Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

This story was originally published in ECS Living.

 

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.

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.

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.

Dal Bhat: Fuel of the Nepali People

Compared to many other Asian countries like Singapore, Thailand and India, Nepal doesn’t stand much of a chance to claim the most diverse cuisine in the region. For example, when attempting to pin down a “national dish” for Singapore, there are many possibilities. It could be chicken rice, or maybe it’s chili crab. Some might claim it’s rojak, and others may say it’s mee goreng. The debate could go on forever, but when aiming to isolate the “national dish” of Nepal, it’s easy. Without question the national dish of Nepal, the meal that is eaten hundreds of thousands of times per day all over the country is dal bhat.

I often wonder about the lack of major variety in Nepali cuisine and have concluded that since Nepal is such a poor country, the first priority for most (especially those outside the Kathmandu Valley in more rural areas) is to get enough food to eat, rather than to develop the flavors of the food to create a breadth of culinary options. This is not to say that dal bhat is not delicious. It is tasty, simple and substantial, which is what the majority of the population is looking for: enough food to fill up to fuel a day’s work, which is often tough manual labor. Dal bhat is to Nepali people what gasoline is to vehicles.

Dal bhat consists of various sized portions of different food groups. The meal centers around white rice (the “bhat”), which is often served in mountainous proportions. The second cornerstone part of the meal is the “dal” which is like a lentil soup, often served in a bowl and then poured on the rice to add flavor and moisture. Dal comes in several varieties, including yellow dal and black dal, both of which are often cooked in a pressure cooker with spices, garlic and sometimes ginger.

In addition to the dal and the bhat the meal, which is usually served on an enormous aluminum plate with small dividers to keep each portion separate, also comes with small heaps of vegetables (tarkari), sometimes meat (chicken, mutton or buffalo) and a dab of achar (pickle) for spice.

The small side of tarkari, or curried vegetables, adds extra flavor and spice to the meal. Usually the tarkari vegetables include cauliflower and potatoes, often with bits of carrots. Especially for an elaborate meal, the dal bhat will be served with a small mound of dark green saag, which is sauteed spinach. On one of the small sections of the metal plate is a helping of achar, or pickle, which is used as a condiment to add spice and flavor to the rest of the meal. Achar comes in all different varieties, but I find the most common achar is made with tomatoes, lapsi (a unique, sour Nepali fruit) and chillies. The achar ingredients are ground into a paste with a mortar and pestle.

Whenever I sit down to a dal bhat meal, the restaurant proprietor or home owner will usually give me a spoon to eat the meal, but Nepalis traditionally eat dal bhat with their right hand. I’ve tried using my hand to eat dal bhat as well, and it usually turns out disastrous as I have not mastered the fine art of mixing each of the parts of the meal into one mound, scooping it up and shoveling it into my mouth with my fingers. When I try, the rice usually ends up all over the place and other diners laugh at my inability to properly do a “finger scoop.” Watching Nepalis eat dal bhat with their hand (always the right hand, as the left is used for the toilet) is truly an amazing site. A hungry Nepali person can put down a massive plate of dal bhat in minutes, mixing eat bite with the perfect ratio of rice, dal, tarkari and achar. Additionally, the owner of the restaurant or tea stall selling dal bhat will often make rounds to each table with an enormous bowl full of rice to refill customers’ plates. A dal bhat meal really is an all-you-can-eat feast that acts as the fuel for the Nepali people.

Above: A traditional dal bhat meal.  Clockwise, starting from the green vegetable: 1) saag – sauteed spinach with garlic and ginger, 2) wild boar cooked with tomato, 3) tarkari – curried cauliflower, potato and carrot, 4) fried fish, 5) curried chicken, 6) achar.  There is black dal in the small bowl accompanying the plate.

Above: Another traditional dal bhat meal.  Take note of the MASSIVE portion of rice.  Second helpings are always available, too.  Photo by: gregw66

Above: More dal bhat, this time with a slice of raw onion for flavor.  Photo by: magical-world

Above: A close-up of tarkari, curried vegetables that always go along with the rice and dal.  Photo by: LilyinNepal

The Smells of Kathmandu

There is little else that has the intense power to incite such simultaneous delight and revulsion in the nasal cavity than a walk through the streets of Kathmandu. On my daily walks through the alleys and lanes of the city, I often think that for a reader who has never been here to fully comprehend the sensory experiences of Kathmandu, a scratch-and-sniff is necessary to accompany an article or a photograph. The smells, which can be both tantalizing and horrendous, that bombard the nose are so plentiful and ever-changing that a short one-hour city walk could be considered the equivalent to taking the nose on a wild up and down theme park roller coaster.
A full day’s walk around Kathmandu could probably lead to a whole book’s worth of descriptions. Instead of describing all the varied aromas from a day, I shall use my walk this morning as a small case study on the phenomenal range of nose stimuli that can be experienced within an hour’s time. This morning I walked from my house in Sanepa to the tourist district of Thamel, a walk through the heart of the city that takes almost exactly one hour.
I leave my house at 9:30 just as Gita, my neighbor, was beginning the laborious daily task of washing the dishes her children’s clothes. She crouches at the water spigot that we share, scrubbing at the kids’ school uniforms with a bar of cheap, green soap that smells of ayurvedic shops and Chinatown. I wave goodbye and she gives me her customary goodbye greeting: “Enjoy today!”
Strolling down the narrow lanes, dodging taxis and private cars that whiz uncomfortably close to me, I pass the small neighborhood butcher shop. A goat was tied to a stake with a rope, chewing blades of grass and looking as though he were overcome with melancholy. His former compatriot lay severed in three pieces on the butcher’s table, hooves jutting into the air. The butcher shop smells permanently of flesh, a kind of earthy smell that is neither pleasing nor appalling. It is the bloody aroma of death that so many butcher shops in the city smell like. I walk by, smiling and waving at the butcher, while feeling sorry for the sad looking goat that will soon meet the same demise as his disconnected friend.
Just around the bend from the butcher is my favorite shop on the street to pass by: the spice grinder. A middle-aged man dressed in ratty t-shirts is perpetually sitting on a stool in front of an ancient-looking spice grinder, pouring in burlap sacks of cumin, turmeric, coriander and mustard seed. On turmeric days, his shirt, hands and face are tinted orange from the clouds of ground spice that escape that metal tubes. Today, he is grinding cumin. When I pass by the spice grinder, I often want to stop and fill my nostrils and lungs with the spice molecules that billow out from the man’s powdery burlap sacks.
I continue on, trying to inhale every last molecule of the spice grinder’s shop because I know the horrors that will meet my nose soon enough. On my way out of Sanepa (my neighborhood), I am blasted with the gritty exhaust of school buses that surely don’t meet the emissions standards anywhere, despite displaying a sticker on their windows that say they do. According to friends in the know, it’s easy for vehicles in Kathmandu to pass the required emissions tests: a few hundred rupees of baksheesh (bribe) will do the trick.
Now, it is on to Pulchowk, the main road that connects the city of Patan, or Lalitpur, with Kathmandu. On the main streets, the smells change almost every ten feet. I walk by a man selling sliced fruit covered with a red netting, which seems to be mostly ceremonious, as flies are feasting on the sweet fruit anyway. He is chopping orange guava, which smells like an over-ripe tropical vacation.
Down the street, in front of a construction site, idle men crouch on the curb and smoke cheap Nepali cigarettes while the sari-clad women continue to mix cement and move bricks from one spot to another. I try not to breathe in the spirals of cigarette smoke, as I consider how emblematic this construction site is of what I’ve seen in much of Nepal: inert men, often smoking and drinking, and busy women, earning money that probably funds their husband’s habits.

I continue on and pass by a street-side tea stall, which is centered around a metal pot that brims with boiling milk, black tea leaves and copious amounts of sugar. The steam from the tea smells rich and creamy like the beverage that will fill the small glass cups of the shop’s patrons.

Ten minutes on Pulchowk and I’m at the bridge that connects Lalitpur to Kathmandu and crosses over the Nepal’s sacred river, the Bagmati. The sacred river, which is meant to wash away sins if bathed in, doubles as a sewer, an easy place to dispose of trash, a car wash, a toilet and a place to do laundry. The areas that line the Bagmati are crowded with squatter’s residences, or slums. The massive rural-urban migration in the past decade has meant an explosion in squatters living by the river who have inadequate access to clean water or medicine. I recently read that a resident in the squatter communities in Kathmandu dies every ten to fifteen days, most likely a woman or a child.
The stink of the Bagmati is oppressive. But when crossing the bridge that spans the river, it is hard for me not to stop in the middle and look out at the mess. It is like a horrible car crash: it’s hard not to look when passing by. Today, a man walks through the middle of the river with a large sack slung across his back. He picks up bits of plastic and empty bottles that were floating down the river. The rotten smell of the river left my mind for a moment as I considered the situation he must be in to actually take it upon himself to forage for plastic in this river. To a visitor, it would be a surprise to learn that the Bagmati is a holy river, for the banks and small islands that dot it are piled high with decomposing trash heaps. Off to one side of the river, bloated and greyish, is a carcass of something. I ask two teenage boys if it is a pig.
“It’s a cow,” they inform me.

Cows walk across the Bagmati.


On the other side of the river, near a squatter’s colony, a man crouches with his feet submerged in the water, shitting in the flowing, brown waters.
I cross to the other side of the bridge and continue on to my destination.
Where the bridge connects to the main streets in Kathmandu are a number of women who bring woks and kerosene to the pavement and set up snack vending stations right on the sidewalk. I walk by and inhale the fumes of greasy, fried snacks, a welcome change from the putrid Bagmati. The plumes drifting off the bubbling oil smell tantalizingly unhealthy.
I walk past the street-side barbers who sit on worn stools next to mounds of snipped black hair on the sidewalk. Punctuating the exhaust fumes are the cloying smells of Indian sweet shops, which vend small, but deceptively rich treats with names like barfi and gulab jamun. Many of the shops, whose glass windows protect pyramids of snacks, are run by sullen-looking Bengalis with dark brown skin. The smell of baking sweets and hot ghee (clarified butter) are so enticing that every time I pass one, I feel a magnetic pull to enter and gorge on the sugary desserts.

Indian Sweets


Five minutes down the street, I pass a small temple, tucked between a greasy auto-repair shop and a veterinary medicine shop. An old woman, who looks about two centuries old, sits in front of the shop with her hand outstretched, begging for money. From the bronze hulk of the temple comes a sweet and smoky fog of incense, sticks of which are lit constantly for the gods.
Now I am at the point where I must cross a main street that flows with a never-ending pulse of traffic. I make use of my usual strategy when crossing major streets in Asia: latch on to a local and follow them across. Once safely to the other side, I pass by a momo shop: the ubiquitous Tibetan dumplings stuffed with chicken, vegetables or buffalo that can be found all over Kathmandu. A young restaurant attendant lifts the lid off an aluminum momo steamer and a cloud of spicy, meaty vapors reaches my nose. He plucks out ten and places them on a dented aluminum plate to accompany a tin of red achar (pickle). The doughy momos smell better than the most expensive perfume ever could, especially because the stench of the river still lingers in my nose.
I pass street vendors who are making popcorn. They make me remember the comforts of the Western movie theater. Then I walk by Ratna Park, the main bus central in the middle of the city, where someone has recently installed a “Mobile Toilet.” The Mobile Toilet is housed in the shell of a large truck and smells like the innards of a campground outhouse. Nepali women who walk by demurely raise a fold of their sari to cover their nose. I have no nose covering, so just try to hold my breath as long as possible.
There is a stretch of sidewalk that spans the distance between Ratna Park and Asan Bazaar that I cringe even thinking about. Even in the mid-morning, this particular piece of my walk is bathed in sun. I usually enjoy walking in the sun, but the rays produce an especially heinous effect here. For some reason, this piece of sidewalk is speckled with mounds of feces, probably mostly from stray dogs. During the night, this piece of sidewalk must also get a thorough bath of urine from dogs and humans. The warmth of the sun bakes the mounds of shit and heats the urine, which releases a distinctive and shockingly foul smell. Even the Bagmati smells like flowers compared to this stretch of sidewalk. I walk as quickly as I can, being careful to avoid the smears of feces on the ground. The suffocating smell of hot urine is so difficult to endure that I consider wearing a gas mask next time I pass by. This piece of sidewalk makes me feel like retching, even passing out. I hold my breath as long as I can, but when I start to feel dizzy, I am forced to take a deep breath. The acidic, acrid stench burns my lungs.
Thankfully, I reach the end of the rancid stretch of sidewalk and my nose is soon appeased by a another fried-snack shop. A man stands in front, pouring viscous dough into hot oil, which produces a delicious, warm fragrance that reminds me of fresh baked cookies. I stop for a minute and watch as the sweet maker curls the watery dough in a circular motion, which will eventually produce the saccharine-sweet jalebi snacks.
I pass the street that leads to Asan Bazaar and hop over some stagnant mud puddles. The next ten minutes are aromatically uneventful, just some repeat smells: fried snacks, Indian sweet shops, steaming momos and the occasional whiff of sewage. Finally, I arrive in the backpacker district of Thamel. Almost immediately upon my arrival to the neighborhood, I start hearing the sounds of chanting monks that blast of the speakers of music shops. They are the same CDs on repeat that have been playing for at least three years, since I was last in Kathmandu.
Immediately the smell of incense floods the streets. There is sandalwood, and nag champa drifting from the storefronts of shops selling fake North Face gear, bootleg movies and used books.
“Taxi, Madame?”
“You want trekking, rafting?”
“Tiger balm?”
All the usual suspects crowd the street corners, trying to sell their services or products.
Finally, I get to my destination, the Northfield Cafe. I order a black coffee and a waiter wearing a collared shirt promptly brings it to me, setting it next to my open computer.

And then, as if to cleanse my nose of the delights and horrors it has smelled in the past hour, comes the welcome aroma of freshly brewed coffee. In just an hour I’ve marveled at the smells of fresh ground spices, frying snacks, incense, momos and milk tea. On the flip side, I’ve wanted to douse my nostrils in the sterilizer after passing the Bagmati, baking urine, feces and sewage. After the last sixty minutes, the warm, comforting aroma of plain black coffee could not be more welcome.